By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Joe Benavides and his partner, Lee Bennett, were the first team from the Port Everglades Fire Rescue Department to enter the burning tugboat. Dragging fire hoses down stairs and through hatches, they descended through 1500-degree temperatures and choking smoke to an unlit storage compartment where used diesel engine filters had caught fire. That's when the filters exploded in their faces. A razor-sharp filter ring severed the chin strap of Benavides' helmet, and one of the filters ripped the helmet clean off his head. For a moment Bennett thought his partner had been decapitated. Grasping each other they navigated blindly up the stairs and through the maze of hatches to safety on the top deck -- the last team out.
That was almost ten years ago, but Benavides, a short, rumpled man who resembles Det. Andy Sipowicz in the TV show NYPD Blue, remembers it vividly. "Those experiences, they are the one thing you can't teach," he says, noting the need to understand the intricate layout of ships. "You don't know what your abilities are until you are faced with them."
Such hard-won experience in fighting shipboard fires, which experts say are very different from land fires, is what makes the 33-person Port Everglades Fire Rescue Department unique. Nevertheless, Broward County wants to assimilate the port firefighters into its much larger fire department -- a move some fear would dilute the highly specialized skills of the unit and endanger port safety.
County administrator Roger Desjarlais has proposed merging Benavides' crew with the county Department of Safety and Emergency Services, which includes the Fire Rescue Division. Herminio Lorenzo, the department director, says this would improve services while saving money for both taxpayers and businesses at the port; the latter pay about $2 million a year in fees for fire protection. The savings would be achieved by eliminating several jobs and shifting the port's director of public safety and assistant director to other county posts. Then the port firefighters would report directly to Lorenzo.
But Benavides, a 20-year veteran of the port fire department, is leading a nervy battle to block Lorenzo's department from taking over. "If the county comes in, they'll have their chiefs take control of fires in the port," says Benavides, who heads the Port Everglades Fire Fighters Local 3080. "The truth is, they are not qualified based on their fire experience in the port."
The proposed seizure of the tiny fire department has sparked an intense battle among county and municipal officials and state legislators -- and even between fraternal union leaders -- over jobs, money, and turf. While the county firefighters' union supports the merger, Hollywood and its firefighters' union have proposed that theytake over the port fire unit, an option that Benavides and his colleagues prefer. Whether all this maneuvering has anything to do with the stated goal of providing the best possible firefighting and rescue services at the port is hard to say.
Before the county took over the port in 1994, the port firefighters were under the independent Port Everglades Authority. At the prodding of Broward's state legislative delegation, the county commission left them as a semiautonomous department. With a maximum of only ten men and women on duty at any given time, the port unit generally can't fight fires, contain petroleum spills, or perform rescues alone. Instead it has lead responsibility for shipboard fires and petroleum spills at the port and for petroleum-based fires throughout the county. Crews from Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Dania Beach, and Broward County provide backup. For instance, when a petroleum tank trailer recently flipped and caught fire on I595, fire teams from several cities and the county helped fight the blaze. But it was two members of the port crew who gingerly climbed aboard the giant bomb and drilled a hole to siphon out the explosive fuel. The unit handled five tank trailer incidents last year.
Now, however, the county is facing pressure to streamline its operations. At the state legislature's urging, cities are rapidly annexing unincorporated areas and replacing county services with their own. The county's fire rescue division has recently lost firefighting responsibilities in unincorporated areas near Pompano Beach and paramedic duties in Fort Lauderdale and several other cities. It's scouting for new territories and revenues. "With annexation, the future of the county fire department is unclear," says Rep. John Rayson (D-Pompano Beach), who opposes the county's effort to force a merger.
Lorenzo denies that the merger proposal has anything to do with saving his department. "That's all bull from people who simply oppose change," he says. "The port firefighters have very limited resources. Anytime they have an incident, the county and the cities around the port have to support them. [The merger] would provide the port with the full support of the Broward Fire Rescue Division, the largest fire department in the county."
But the people who pay the bill for port services don't buy it. "We have a fire department that is trained to handle issues that are somewhat unique to the port, and we're happy with what we have," says Randy Cernick, president of the Port Everglades Oil-Related Industries Association, which represents more than 200 businesses at the port. He questions the county's claims that the merger would save money. "The county's numbers just don't add up."