An Inflamed Defection

Port Everglades firefighter Joe Benavides is braving the wrath of county officials to keep his crew independent
Melissa Jones

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 they take 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."

That was echoed in late June by port director James O'Brien. In a sharp letter to Lorenzo, he debunked the claimed savings and criticized the elimination of several key jobs. The true purpose of the merger, he suggested, was to protect the jobs of Lorenzo's staff. But O'Brien retired last month. At a recent meeting, Benavides says, Desjarlais told him that he would make sure that the next port director, whom he is currently in the process of recruiting, supports the merger. Benavides says Desjarlais also warned him that anyone who opposes the move could suffer career damage. Desjarlais was out of town and couldn't be reached for comment. Acting administrator Shirley Kelley didn't return repeated phone calls.

Some members of the Broward state legislative delegation are threatening to intervene. "The port firefighters have specialized training that you don't have in any other area of the county," says Rayson, who is organizing support among his colleagues for keeping the unit semiautonomous. "If [Desjarlais] tries to integrate them by force, the legislature has the power to amend the legal status of the port."

Last month Benavides and two of his colleagues proudly showed off their specialized fire trucks, which hold far more foam and dry-chemical compound to extinguish petroleum-based fires than any other trucks in the area. Barry Fortney, a muscular 12-year veteran of the unit, spent three years working with an experienced driver before he was allowed to take one of the trucks to a fire by himself. Mechanic Rip Dalrymple, a big man with an Abe Lincoln beard and an engineer's cap pushed back on his head, explained how he worked with the manufacturer to design the trucks to fit the port's needs. Under Lorenzo's plan, Dalrymple, who's worked on the port unit's machines for 15 years, would be transferred out of the port.

Benavides insists on maintaining the requirement that all members of his unit rise up through the ranks so they know their jobs cold. He doesn't want senior firefighters who lack specialized port training and experience to be transferred in from other departments. Lorenzo says the port firefighters' collective bargaining agreement, which runs for another 15 months, already guarantees against this. Benavides has asked Lorenzo to extend that provision indefinitely, but Lorenzo has not responded.

Angered by the county's stance, the port firefighters unanimously agreed in June to ask Hollywood to take over their unit and keep it separate. Some observers laughed at Benavides' audacious move to secede from the county, but not Hollywood officials. Last month Hollywood city manager Sam Finz wrote a letter to Desjarlais asking for a meeting to discuss a possible merger between the port unit and the Hollywood Fire Rescue Department.

"The Hollywood Fire Rescue is where the port firefighters need to be, because we are responsible for 80 percent of the port," says Randy Burrough, Hollywood's fire chief, who, like Lorenzo, denies that this is a battle over money and turf. But Russell Chard, president of the Hollywood Professional Fire Fighters union, admits that this is at least partly about turf. "If Hollywood doesn't provide services for an area within its boundaries, people could say that the area should be de-annexed from the city," he says, adding that county officials angry about Hollywood's proposal have already made that threat.

Ironically Lorenzo himself was critical of county fire and rescue services in the port and proposed that Hollywood take over the port fire department -- when he was Hollywood's fire chief. "At that time it looked like a good revenue source for the city, and it still looks like a good revenue source," he says with a chuckle. Now he accuses Hollywood, which recently launched a regionalized fire operation with Fort Lauderdale and Dania Beach, of trying to take over his turf.

Benavides is reluctant to criticize the abilities of Lorenzo's department, on which he may have to depend someday in a life-and-death situation. But he questions whether the county department could immediately provide as good a service as that now offered by his unit in partnership with the cities and the county. "I can't say things would go south on fire calls," he says. "But lives could be lost, and there could be hundreds of millions of dollars of environmental damage. I don't want to play turf games. I just care about protecting the port."

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