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Captiva Fire celebrates 60th with new station

By Staff | Jul 15, 2015

The grand opening of a new fire station on Captiva July 18, will serve as a very special anniversary present for the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Captiva Island Fire District, said Rich Dickerson, the island’s Fire Chief.

The $3.5 million facility will make its debut to the public on Saturday, July 18, during an open house from 10 a.m. to noon.

A barbecue will be served to the public in honor of the grand opening, with tours being held to show off the CFD’s new digs.

Over that span of six decades, the Captiva Fire Department has transformed from little more than a volunteer bucket brigade to a squad of highly-trained professionals with sophisticated equipment who not only fight fires, but have Advanced Life Support training to deal with everything from cardiac arrests, drownings and trauma victims to tourists who get stung by jellyfish while swimming at the beach.

The origins of today’s fire department actually go back even further to the late 1940s when the fledgling Captiva Civic Association and its CCA Woman’s Auxiliary created the Captiva Volunteer Fire Department. By 1949, the CCA discussed buying firefighting equipment and recruiting 25 volunteer firefighters.

Within a year, the CCA had received the donation of a used fire truck, a recirculating pump and a new fire hose from island resident J.N “Ding” Darling. It also had recruited 22 volunteers.

In 1953, the CCA named John Wakefield as the first volunteer fire chief. Andy Rosse was his assistant chief. Joe Wightman was named maintenance engineer and paid $10 a month to keep the firefighting equipment in good working order.

CCA minutes for Jan. 21, 1954 indicate that for a cost of $384.16, a group of volunteers built a new fire station consisting of a tin shed across the street from where the department’s new $3.5 million fire station has emerged.

All but five property owners on the island donated $25 per parcel for firefighting services, and Chief Wakefield proclaimed Captiva’s fire truck and equipment the best in all of Lee County.

A New Fire District Created

The following year 60 years ago Florida’s Legislature approved legislation creating the Captiva Fire Control District. This elevated the island’s fire department to an independent state taxing district and created an appointed fire commission, which would later become an elected commission.

Captiva’s Control District also covered part of Sanibel north of Bowman’s Beach until 1974 when Sanibel became incorporated as a city.

In 1960, the CCA built a new one-engine fire station, which remains a part of the recently remodeled and expanded CCA Building and Captiva Memorial Library on Chapin Lane.

But with the subsequent construction of the Sanibel Causeway and the growth of what is now South Seas Island Resort in the 1970s, Captiva was becoming a major mecca for tourists and snowbirds.

Its fire department quickly outgrew both the new fire house and its all-volunteer force.

By 1977, a lot next to the Bubble Room had been purchased for a new fire station. Following a heated dispute between the fire commissioners and volunteer Fire Chief Bill Hughes, the fire chief resigned.

Fire commissioners turned to John Bates, who lived on Captiva, but was at the time a paid firefighter for the Sanibel Fire Department.

“The commission asked me if I would take on as a volunteer no pay the Captiva Fire Department and planning for the new fire station,” Bates recalled.

He said he was told if he took on the project, he would be remembered in six months when the commission started looking for a new chief who, for the first time, would be paid a salary.

“I went out on a limb,” Bates remarked. “I was still working for the Sanibel Fire Department, which didn’t pay very well, so I had a second job managing a grocery store (now the Santiva mart) for the Baileys. I had sleepless nights for the next six months.”

When he took on the challenge, there was dissention over the new firehouse, an all-volunteer force, and fire hydrants on the island that effectively had no water since water mains on Captiva were only big enough to handle a flow of a few hundred gallons per minute, compared to 1,500 gallons a minute when the Island Water Association expanded them in the 1980s.

In 1980, the new fire station patterned closely after Sanibel’s Station 2 was completed, and Bates was named the island’s first paid fire chief. It was a post he held for the next 26 years.

By January 1981, he had hired and was training three other paid firefighters who, along with the chief, each covered one of the three shifts and a handful of volunteers.

One of those professional firefighters on the newly combined professional/volunteer force was Paul Garvey, who is now executive director of the CCA.

“An important thing about the Captiva Fire Department back then was that before we had a resident deputy sheriff on the island, there was no other place except the fire department that provided safety or structure for the island,” Garvey said.

“Now, if someone fears their property is being intruded on or has an emergency, they call 911,” he added. “That wasn’t always true, and that’s why the fire department was such an important place for the community for so many years.

Volunteers From All Walks of Life

Garvey, a training instructor who trained volunteers, noted, “Back then you had people from all walks of life attorneys, doctors, engineers, people who worked at Timmy’s Nook (a popular bar and restaurant where the Green Flash now stands) who were volunteers. It was an interesting group of people and a smart group. We trained them to do everything.

“There was a great sense of community in that respect. Everybody knew everybody. When you would bring the fire truck out of the station, people would jump on the truck as you went down the road.”

Reportedly the fire truck especially slowed down when it got near Timmy’s Nook so any volunteers sitting at the bar could run out the door, jump on the truck and go fight a fire with a bottle of beer in hand.

For safety reasons, jumping on a moving truck was abolished in the mid-1980s, and a pager system for summoning volunteers was instituted.

According to Bates and Garvey, as the island transformed into more of a vacation destination, with fewer young year-around residents who had the physical strength to struggle with nearly 80 pounds of equipment and breathing apparatus, and participate in ever more rigorous state training and certification programs for volunteers, it became harder to recruit volunteers.

By the time Bates retired in 2006, the Captiva Fire Department had five paid fire fighters.

“We could all see that was probably the last round of volunteers we would get through training because they were doubling the number of hours required (for volunteers) and moving the training to Ocala,” Bates said.

Today, there are only four volunteers Mark Wells, Jack Cunningham, Ron Gibson and C.W. Kilgore who assist the 11 professional firefighters and paramedics on the force.

Bob Brace, a commissioner, was one of the last of the volunteers. He said his training involved about 150 hours of learning about fire science, equipment and firefighting.

He also took courses in basic first aid and CPR, and regularly trained on pulling hoses, attaching them to fire hydrants, learning how to attack a fire and safety in the field.

“Then we all had to take a state test,” he remarked. “Most of us were a little past our school years, and I was quite concerned about passing the test.”

A few of the volunteer firefighters over the years were women. The late artist Stella Farwell was a volunteer firefighter and later a commissioner.

Wells is the only volunteer with enough training to drive a fire truck or to go in a burning building to fight fires.

Wells said he started in 2001, the day after there was a major fire in a golf cart barn at South Seas, where he was working as a security guard at the time. He said certification to be a volunteer fire fighter and EMT paramedic has become so stringent, “if you have to go to training and school for all of that, you might as well make a career out of it.”

Unsolved Mystery

Everyone affiliated with the fire department has a most memorable fire.

For Bates, it was a blaze in the early 1980s that destroyed an elevated guest home located on the bay side of Captiva Drive shortly after rounding the curve coming onto the island. It was a fire that was called in at 2 a.m. by a Sanibel resident who looked across Blind Pass and saw a glow in the sky.

After the fire was put out, the remains of a dog and a human were found. Because of evidence, including that the fire was started with flammable liquids and the victim had breathed smoke and was conscious when he died, the fire was ruled an arson and murder.

But why the person was killed and who was responsible remains a mystery.

“That was the most traumatic one for me because it resulted in loss of life,” Bates said.

The most difficult fire to put out, Bates said, was a house built out over Roosevelt Channel that was owned by Karel Aster, who recently was honored by both the Czech Republic and the Philippines for his World War II heroism.

Bates recalled that there was a tropical storm that night, torrential rain, high tides, lightning, strong wind, the house was fully engulfed in flames and the property was flooded. A boat under Aster’s house had exploded and fallen into the water, setting the house ablaze. Power lines were down.

It was discovered one of the fire trucks, which couldn’t get near the house because of flooding, was parked under a tree. Bates said half the tree fell down just moments after they decided, “on a whim,” to move the pumper to a safer location.

Furthermore, Aster’s wife had gone to a different neighbor’s house for safety than her husband thought, and there was concern about whether she had escaped the inferno.

“That was the trickiest one I remember,” Bates said, “because we were fighting an electrical fire, a flood, a raging thunderstorm and lightning.”

More Than Just Fighting Fires

The Insurance Services Office has established a rating system used by insurance companies to set fire insurances rates. The best rating is a 1 and the worst is a 10.

During Bates’ tenure, the island’s ISO rating dropped from a 9 to a 7 as paid fire fighters were hired and water mains were improved.

“We were able to compute that the cost of improving the fire district to residents was less than the savings the residents received on their insurance policies,” Bates said.

Captiva’s ISO rating under Bates’ successor, Jay Halverson, who served from 2006 until 2011, and current chief, Rich Dickerson, who took the helm in 2011, is now down to a 3.

But, fighting fires is only a small part of what Captiva’s fire department is all about. Seventy percent of the runs don’t involve fires at all.

Recalling a memorable non-emergency run, Wells said one day he emerged from his driveway on the Tween Waters section of Captiva Drive to see two SUVs flipped on their sides and a little Toyota which had suffered serious damage.

“The fellow driving the Toyota had medical issues, lost control and managed to hit both of the SUVs just right and flipped them,” Wells said. “There were vehicles all over the road, but fortunately no one was seriously injured.”

Bates remembered an accident in the early 1980s involving a South Seas employee who was so small she could barely see over the steering wheel of her big car as she was coming on the island and rounding the curve just past Blind Pass.

A flatbed truck was having problems pulling in the driveway on the third house down and its back end was sticking out about four feet into the roadway when the woman’s car came around the curve, collided with the truck on the passenger side of her car, causing the vehicle to lose control and crash into a ditch on the opposite side of the road.

When authorities, including firefighters, arrived at the scene, the woman was not badly injured. But she was hysterical, claiming that she was hearing voices.

“Well, it turned out that what she was hearing was the voice of her 12-year-old son who had regularly been playing hooky from school,” Bates explained.

The youngster, it seems, often pretended to go to school, but then would go hide in the trunk of his mother’s car just before she headed off to work. After she arrived on the job, he would release himself from the trunk with a screwdriver and spend the day playing at South Seas while she worked. Then he sneaked back in the trunk before she headed home.

“After the accident,” Bates recalled, “we broke into the trunk, and here’s this12-year-old kid looking at the police and firemen. He’s all banged up and thinking that his life is over.

“I remember one of the police officers saying, ‘Hey, there’s no place on this form for occupant in the trunk of a car’.”

A Hurricane Hits the Island

But what almost everyone alive who has been involved with the Captiva Fire Department vividly remembers most is Hurricane Charley, which struck Captiva, on Aug, 13, 2004.

Bates said there were pre-storm plans in place that called for leaving part of the equipment in place and putting part of it in a secure Island Water Association building on Sanibel if an evacuation was called for.

But when information was received about midnight about a change in the hurricane’s predicted path, it was decided to move some of the equipment to the IWA facility and move one of the pumpers to the mainland. Some of the staff went with the Sanibel Fire District to the Holiday Inn Bell Tower Command Post and others, including Wells, rode out the storm in a boat at the little Bayside Marina at South Seas.

“After Charley hit on Friday,” Wells said, “we opened up the fire department, and once we got the generator running and the lights on, people just came out of the woodwork. The first thing we did was to start clearing Captiva Drive so we could get emergency vehicles up here.”

He noted that they cleared the road as far as the S-curve south of Tween Waters, but so many trees were such a “tangled mess” south of there that they had to wait for U.S. Forest Service tree trimmers to come up from the south.

The entire road was cleared by Monday.

Meanwhile, firefighters who had gone to the mainland were arriving at the big marina at South Seas and literally crawling over trees through the resort to get to the fire station.

Bates said the Island Water Association worked to restore the water mains while it took Lee County Electric Cooperative three weeks to get the power back on the island.

“It was three solid weeks of work for me,” Wells remarked, “and then I had to get back to work at South Seas.”

A Fire Station for

the Next 50 Years

The possibility of another hurricane is one reason why Captiva’s new fire station was built to withstand 170 mile-per-hour winds, has a huge generator and its site was slightly elevated in case the island is inundated.

A large diesel fuel tank under the generator also can be used to refill the fire truck, instead of having to go to Sanibel for fuel.

Planning for the new fire station began in 2008, and ground was broken April 10, 2014. The department received its certificate of occupancy on June 3 of this year.

“Why did we need the new building?” Dickerson rhetorically asked. “Number one was the lack of space which we have now corrected. Based on our experience during Hurricane Charley, where we had large numbers of people working continuously for the next three to six weeks, we had a hard time housing everyone. The new building has an upstairs that can be converted into an emergency operations center.”

There are seven bedrooms upstairs and room for housing additional people, a full-sized kitchen, and three bays instead of two for housing the department’s two fire engines, as well as an extra EMS unit.

Its bays also are longer, capable of housing a larger fire ladder truck.

The new station has a large EMS support room with life-support equipment and supplies, a work room for doing general maintenance on firefighting equipment, a fitness facility with cardio and weight lifting equipment, and a separate decontamination room.

Smaller touches include facilities to refill air tanks, which now have to be filled on Sanibel, and a downstairs laundry room with commercial-grade washing machines for washing clothes contaminated by smoke residue.

Studies, Dickerson noted, have found that older and retired firemen have a higher than normal incidence of cancer, believed to be caused in part by contamination from smoke residue on their gear.

The new station also has a training room that Dickerson hopes to use to ramp up community training for CPR, blood pressure monitoring and other events.

“Our goal was to build a building that will be here for the next 50 years,” Dickerson remarked.

Furthermore, using a 75-25 matching grant from Florida, the department purchased a utility all-terrain vehicle for beach rescues. With another grant in 2010 from the West Coast Inland Navigation District, it was able to purchase a jet ski that serves as a personal water rescue craft with a rescue sled.

In 2011, the department sent two paramedics to school and hired additional ones with advanced certification.

Since the Advanced Life Support service was put in place that year, training firefighters with paramedic certification to administer life-saving drugs to severely compromised patients, the department has been credited with three successful cardiac arrest saves where the patient has fully recovered and been discharged from the hospital.

Looking to the Future

While celebrating the past six decades as a fire control district, capped by the completion of a new fire station, Dickerson, his firefighters, volunteers and three commissioners Bob Brace, Sherrill Sims and C.W. Kilgore are now looking to the challenges of the future.

“There has been a big increase in visitors on the island the last two years,” Dickerson noted.

The department’s call volume last year was up 35 percent and up 50 percent in the peak tourism period. Traffic congestion on the island is increasing. Houses are getting bigger. Hurricanes remain a threat.

While the island continues to evolve, and its new fire house may not be, as it once was, about the only place to turn to for islanders in trouble, Dickerson said he hopes the new station will serve the community in expanded ways.

And while the days of a diverse group of local volunteer firefighters emerging from Timmy’s Nook to jump aboard a fire truck with a beer bottle in hand are fading into nostalgic memories, the fire chief said he is certain that the main function of the fire district to protect lives and property remains as valid as it was 60 years ago when the Captiva Island Fire District was created.