No seasonal slow time for Marco police and fire departments

Wednesday, May 7, 2003

By BILLY BRUCE, Staff Writer

Marco Island public safety officials say they won't be slacking off now that seasonal residents have begun to make their annual exodus to Northern climes — an exodus that cuts the city's residential population in half until fall.

A fire is still a fire and a crime is still a crime, and both emergencies still demand full response from Marco's police and fire departments, the staffs of which find themselves strained during the often hectic peak season when the city's population more than doubles from October to April, Police Chief Roger Reinke and Fire Chief Mike Murphy said.

Reinke said there's no major, significant shift in crime numbers during the off-season, but service calls for traffic accidents or other emergencies are less frequent during that time. Murphy said the number of medical calls drops significantly in the off-season, but the potential for fire and other emergencies remains high.

Both Reinke and Murphy said the need for public safety response rarely diminishes with the drop in seasonal population.

Crime does happen more frequently during the peak season, with one third of all crimes handled by the police department during the year occurring between January and April, Reinke said.

"But it's not a substantial number, as far as the difference between peak and off-season," he said. "Crime is still going to happen regardless. At any given time an incident can occur that will require an intense response whether it's a bad traffic accident, drugs, or violent crime."

Public safety staff have Memorial Day weekend later this month, July 4th activities and Labor Day weekend in September to plan for. Those weekends bring thousands of visitors to Marco—many of them young and ready to consume alcoholic beverages or illegal substances, Reinke said.

The off-season can be tough to manage, staff-wise, for Reinke because it's the best time for officers to take vacation, and it also is the best time to fire up training activities. Juggling training schedules and vacation schedules can be tough, he said.

The police department's 28 full-time officers, including Reinke, are geared to handle a permanent island population of 18,000 residents.

"The influx of seasonal residents that more than doubles the population puts a tremendous strain on our resources," Reinke said. "We don't have any seasonal officers on the payroll. So we maximize work hours and minimize vacation time during peak season. But then we try to pick up training activities in the off-season, and we still have incidents occurring that deserve the same level of response as at any time.

So it can be difficult, staff-wise."

Hurricane and disaster preparedness become the focus of more intensive training activities in the departments during summer months, and police officers and firefighters who begged off vacations during peak season are able to take off in the slower season, they said.

"We get about 60 less medical calls a month in the off-season, compared to the 200 or more we get during peak season," Murphy said. "But calls for fires and hazardous material emergencies stay consistent."

Said Reinke, "It seems it was about the middle of last week that the number of calls to the police department began to diminish. A little more than one third of all the crime we handle during the year occurs during peak months.

The fire department focuses on safety for school-age children, who need activities to occupy their time in the summer, Murphy said.

"The kids are at pools, on the beaches and on the streets, roaming free, so we try to focus on safety issues that concern them," Murphy said.

The fire department is staffed in three shifts with seven people on each shift, regardless of whether it's peak or off season, he said.

"A fire is a fire, and it still requires an intensive personnel response no matter what time of year it is," Murphy said. "Although there's less medical calls, a medical call on the 20th floor of an island condominium still requires the same number of personnel."

There may be fewer people and less traffic, but the need for preparedness for efficient response to emergencies doesn't change, Reinke and Murphy said.