By Anna Cooke. This story first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of The New Barker.
Gliding through marshes and wetlands and leaning into the airboat’s every turn felt like a bird skimming the water in mid-flight. We sat up high in one of the two seats and sped across the water. It was both exhilarating and a little scary.
Remember the scene from the movie Titanic, when Jack and Rose are at the bow of the boat? Jack shouted, “I’m king of the world,” and convinced Rose to let go of the rail as the ship clipped through the ocean. But this was not the movies and there were no icebergs on our horizon. Fortunately, the very capable Captain Kevin Roderiques was at the helm, and he knew this was a first-time experience for his passenger. Still, I did not believe I would be letting go of the airboat’s rails anytime soon.
Handing over a set of dual-purpose headphones (sound-dampening and
microphone-equipped for conversation), Roderiques could see his passenger’s trepidation. His sixth sense as a law enforcement professional was spot-on.
“You’re not going to do some kind of 360 rollover like the Blue Angels do to a newbie in mid-flight are you?” I asked. His answer, a simple ‘no’ without an ounce of sarcasm in his voice, was reassuring through the headphones. It was also reassuring to know that we would be able to converse without yelling.
Another calming bonus was that Shey, a black Labrador Retriever, was accompanying us. This beautiful, shiny dog was not along just for the ride, however. In addition to showing off her prowess at remaining upright on all fours as the airboat angled every which way, Shey would be demonstrating her skills as a certified search and rescue K9. She works with the Florida-3 Airboat Search and Rescue Team (FL3ASAR), and has been cross-trained for cadaver and live search and rescue.
The FL3ASAR team is a group made up of law enforcement, fire, rescue and EMS professionals, many of whom have had prior military experience. While the ride with Shey was in and of itself breathtaking, it was amazing to find out that this team is an all-volunteer group relying on donations to keep operating. Oftentimes, however, the dedicated group will use their own money to continue their mission of saving the lives of people and animals stranded as a result of a man-made or natural disaster.
FL3ASAR was created soon after the flooding in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. Working under the direction of FEMA, many members of FL3ASAR witnessed firsthand the airboat’s capabilities as they were being used to evacuate thousands of people stranded due to urban area flooding. The airboat, it turns out, is the most efficient means of mass rescue during floods, capable of delivering thousands of pounds of feed to stranded livestock. Unlike other rescue devices, an airboat has no moving parts below the waterline, allowing it to maneuver through fields of debris. Moving almost effortlessly in extreme conditions, airboats can navigate turbulent and shallow water, and even over dry land if necessary.
Since Katrina, FL3ASAR has responded to calls for service beyond the scope of flood evacuation, having evolved into a full service search and rescue operation. The FL3ASAR airboats are especially equipped with 3D side scan sonar, underwater video equipment, GPS and special communications equipment. All of the airboat operators are licensed United States Coast Guard captains. They have also completed a U.S. Department of Interior-approved airboat operations course.
People often fail to prepare for a natural or man-made disaster, resulting in animals being left behind during an evacuation. Since Hurricane Katrina, lessons have been learned and more shelters are allowing people to bring their pets. However, domestic livestock are also at risk during natural disasters, swept away by strong currents as they naturally seek higher ground. If they do reach what are known as island farms, they become stranded, succumbing to disease or starvation.
Through a private grant in 2010, FL3ASAR was able to take delivery of a 20-foot airboat, manufactured by Diamondback Airboats and customized for animal rescue efforts in flooded areas. It’s the only one of its kind in the United States. The new Animal Rescue Team airboat has a three-rudder system instead of the normal two, with only one row of seats instead of the normal two. The three-rudder system allows for better steerage and the removal of the front seat provides added deck space for a larger working area and more animal cage storage. The drop-down “Grass Rake” facilitates the transportation, delivery and retrieval of necessary supplies and/or equipment for animal rescue.
“I can carry up to 4,000 pounds of feed in this boat,” said Captain Roderiques. “We can even rescue a manatee if need be,” he added.
The Animal Rescue Team is available to state and federal agricultural and wildlife agencies; national, state and local humane societies; and veterinary organizations. Captain Roderiques, who is also the Team Commander, said that FL3ASAR can be deployed within 24 hours.
Working on land or water, Shey is capable of performing live finds — tracking a live person’s trail for miles. She is also trained in human remains detection (HRD). When on water-based missions, she is equipped with a floatation device, performing her duties directly from the bow of the airboat. She has also been trained to perform as a rescue swimmer, capable of towing people back to the boat or shore.
During our trip, Captain Roderiques continued to point out what Shey was doing at any given moment, while describing the intricacies of search and rescue. She leaned into the wind, discerning the different smells. She scanned the banks for clues, working hard, and ready to alert at any given moment.
As we pulled up to the banks to disembark, I realized I had not taken one note for my story. During the trip, Shey would occasionally turn her big, beautiful head to look back at me, giving me that mischievous Labrador smile. She was probably laughing at me. The only time I let go of the rails was to grab my camera with one hand to snap a few quick photos of her. Otherwise, it was pretty much a white-knuckle excursion for me, while Shey effortlessly did a job she clearly loved doing.
Editor’s Note: Shey passed away several years ago. Captain Kevin Roderiques, K-9 Sergeant for the Tampa Airport Police Department, is now retired.