KEY LARGO — Despite the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department emblem bearing the words, “Dive Capital of the World,” the local service officially has no volunteer water emergency response team in place as of last week, though some officials remain hopeful that the relationship might be salvaged.
The Key Largo Water Emergency Team’s services have long been considered a “feather in the cap” of the local fire department given that Monroe County ranks as one of the deadliest for water-related injuries.
Quiescence dive center owner Rob Bleser, who headed the marine team unit since 1999, formally broke off relations with the department during last week’s meeting of the Key Largo Fire Rescue & Emergency Management Services District. He, along with about a dozen others from the water team, were vocal and irate with the special taxing district’s board of directors.
Bleser’s anger stems from his group being publicly disavowed by the fire department after being probed by a private investigator retained by the family of the late Canadian underwater filmmaker, Robert Stewart.
Stewart died while diving off of Islamorada in late January, and Bleser successfully recovered his body at about 200 feet below the surface. Bleser was called because he has the technical skills required for such a deep-water recovery.
Stewart’s family has filed legal action against the dive shop and deep-dive rebreather equipment company that worked with the filmmaker. The family has also sought a video Bleser made about the rescue effort.
According to fire department attorney Jack Bridges, Bleser and his crew are not covered by the department’s worker compensation insurance, and legally they are not part of the department nor does the department want to assume liability for their services.
Bridges told the Free Press that Bleser performs a service that the fire department does not, and because of that, it lends him a radio in the same vein that it would provide a radio “to the leader of a group of volunteers searching for a lost child.”
The arrangement appeared to be more extensive than just a department radio, according to Bleser’s comments to the board last week.
“All emergency response use of Fire Boat 25 shall cease, the diving equipment on loan to Water Rescue 25 shall be returned to Quiescence and the equipment owned by the district shall be returned to the district, including the light bar, siren, portable fire pump, backboard, two mobile radios, one alert pager, my personal bunker gear and my keys and entry cards to both stations,” he told the board. “The fire department decals and shields installed on the boat by the department shall be removed.”
The fire department’s current budget also contains a $800 line item for dive rescue.
Bridges noted that Bleser was not contacted by the department to respond to the Stewart matter.
“If someone dials 911 and reports a diver down in Key Largo, dispatch, which is operated by the sheriff’s office, calls Bleser,” he said. “We were never toned out with regard to the Rob Stewart operation.”
Bleser, however, told the Free Press that he texted Fire Chief Don Bock when first contacted to respond to the Stewart incident, and Bock told him, “Please do.”
Bleser told the Free Press a month ago that his agreement was highly formalized with the previous fire department, which lost its contract with the district about four years ago due to management issues. A new department with most of the same crew was reorganized and entered into a contract with the district. It is run by Bock, who also heads the Key Largo Ambulance Corps.
Bleser said that at the time of the changeover, the water rescue team signed paperwork and presented PADI certification to be switched over to the new department. He said he was told all operating procedures in regard to water rescues were to be the same as before.
Last month, a bulletin at Fire Station Station 24 posted water response procedures and listed Bleser’s contact information. That paper has since been removed.
After the meeting, Bock told the Free Press the Key Largo Fire Department changed its bylaws in 2015 to require all personnel to have a current state firefighter certification, run a minimum of 72 hours of firefighter shifts per month and meet specific training hours per month.
He said that Bleser and most of his water team don’t meet these requirements; thus, they are not “legally” considered part of the fire department.
However, he added that the department’s bylaws could be modified to accommodate the water response team but that the most pertinent issue remains insurance coverage. Without insurance coverage, they can not operate on the department’s behalf.
Bleser owed apology
Chelyn Shaw, who previously volunteered with the water emergency team, said the department has insulted Bleser and the other volunteers.
“First and foremost, the department owes Bleser a formal and public apology,” she said. “If they’ve publicly disowned us, then they can publicly apologize at least. We all had to be trained to do what we do. We have IDs and T-shirts, and now politics have gotten in the way.”
Bleser has been at the helm of the volunteer crew during at least 15 rescue or recovery missions in the Keys in the last decade, Shaw said.
According to U.S. Coast Guard Key West sector commanding officer Capt. Jeffrey Janszen, “He [Bleser] is one of very few people who are qualified to dive that deep and has the technical capabilities.”
The public distancing took place after the fire department received international praise for the recovery of Stewart’s body and after Commissioner Bob Thomas requested during the January meeting that Bleser “at the very least” be reimbursed for fuel costs during the recovery mission.
Bleser said the water rescue had previously been insured under the former fire department. Commissioner Tony Allen said the district has no records of ever having insured the water volunteers.
“We need to have worker’s comp at least. Everyone is so sue-happy these day, we need to legally protect the district,” he said.
Commissioner George Mirabella said the department should look into insuring Bleser’s crew up to a certain depth. If they want to go deeper, it’s at their own risk, he said.
Commissioner Danny Powers, who said he has fought fires aboard Bleser’s boat, said he’d hate to see Bleser’s service not be available. Thomas shared the same sentiment.
Bridges said, “This isn’t about Mr. Bleser or any individual. It’s about insurance, plain and simple. It’s about protecting the fire department and the citizens of Key Largo from liability.”
Former fire chief Ike Beal, who attended the meeting, said, “Maybe the department should find a different lawyer or a different insurance provider.”
Powers said he’s hopeful an insurance solution is possible and that Bleser might have a change of heart.
When contacted last month by the Free Press, Bleser said he would take a “wait-and-see” approach to how the matter is resolved. He said he never thought the department would deny his affiliation altogether.