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County Fireboats: Dead in the Water

MIAMI (CBSMiami) - Dana Schwabenbauer recalls the final moments before the tragic accident that would take her brother's life.

"I remember going out to the sandbar, we weren't there that long before it happened," she said.

It was Labor Day weekend 2012 and Dana and her brother Josh were just off Haulover Beach enjoying the day on a friend's boat.

"I remember being in the water with my friends and my boyfriend, and josh waving at me," she said. "And I took a picture of him and then everything started happening."

The picture shows Josh, an off-duty Lauderhill firefighter, standing atop the boat smiling. Because Dana was in the water looking up at her brother, the picture has an ethereal quality where he almost seems to be floating in a cloud.

"It's crazy because ten minutes later that was it," she said.

Josh either fell or dove into the water - misjudging the depth, and breaking his neck on the ocean floor. Dana didn't realize something was wrong until she spotted him floating face down in the water.

"The clock was ticking, there was really nothing there we could have done, and no one was there to help," she said.

An off-duty paramedic rendered CPR and eventually got Josh to shore. He was taken to Hollywood Memorial where three days later he was pronounced dead.

"It was just horrendous," said Brad Schwabenbauer, Josh's father. "His eyes were still flickering, they had some life left in them, but he was pretty much, according to the physicians, not with us anymore."

The death hit Dana especially hard. She described her brother as the best person she has ever known.

"I feel like I've lost my future, a person that was supposed to grow old with me and be there for me during family events and in bad times," she said.

Josh Schwabenbauer is one of seventeen people who have died in Miami Dade waters since the county fire department pulled their fireboats out of service for budget reasons in November 2011.

"My brother deserved a fair chance at living," said Dana. "He didn't get it."

Added Josh's mother, Sharon: "It's kind of sad no one was there."

The family is under no illusion that the fireboat would guarantee a different outcome.  But the family wishes the effort would have been made.

So where was the fireboat on that Labor Day Weekend? The same place it is today - tied to a dock in the Port of Miami. The boat is well maintained, fueled, and ready to go. But instead it remains idle.

The county's second fireboat sits a short distance away dry-docked.

"When people die on the water nobody cares or nobody says anything," argues Jack Garcia, a Miami Dade fire fighter who was assigned to the boat before it was taken out of service.

Mike Parker, a retired fire captain who also had worked on the boats, said he felt the department's decision was not only irresponsible but also sent the wrong message to the public.

"We were kind of told the lives that we save, the people that we help really didn't matter," he told CBS4 Investigator Jim DeFede

And as Garcia noted, the fireboat, while it was in service did a lot of good.  "We saved a lot of people," he said.

Never was that more true than in March 2008 when two boats were fully engulfed in flames in the Miami Beach Marina. As the fireboat arrived screams were heard coming from below deck from one of the boats. Two teenagers - brother and sister - were trapped. Parker was the captain of the fireboat that maneuvered in to cut a hole in the side of the boat to get them out.

Parker said he has no doubt at all that if the fireboat wasn't there, those two teenagers would have died.

Now calls for help elicit a different response. When a plane went down in the water off Turkey Point, and firefighters on land asked if the boat was in service, the dispatcher declared: "Negative Battalion 7 there is no fireboat."

CBS4 News reviewed more than 100 radio transmissions and reports and the response is always the same. A cabin fire aboard a boat off Matheson Hammock had the owner of the boat begging for help.

"If the fire boat doesn't get here to put it out its going to sink right where it is," he said on his radio.

And since most boat owners don't even realize the fireboat won't answer their calls for help, he could soon be heard declaring: "Standing by for the fire boat to get here."

While there are other emergency vehicles on the water – including police and Coast Guard vessels - none of them are equipped to fight fires and none of them are they staffed with paramedics and divers

Parker notes how much time and money the county spent developing this program.

"I think it was an irresponsible decision," Parker said. "I think there was a tremendous amount of time, effort, money, and development that went into the program that all of a sudden became unimportant."

At least $800,000 was spent refurbishing a dock for the fireboat and millions more on the boats themselves.

Now, instead of fighting fires with the boat, the fire department goes takes absurd risks. In May there was a boat fire in which a family of five, including a 17-month baby, had to abandon ship when smoke filled their cabin as they were anchored near the Broad Causeway.

"We're going to need the fire boat to get to this," said one of the commanders who could see the boat burning.

"The fire boat is out of service," the dispatcher responded. "We don't have the fireboat at this time."

Since there was no fireboat, a private tow boat grabbed onto the burning ship's anchor, and literally dragged the burning boat over to the causeway so fire trucks on the bridge span could spray water on it.

The move was so risky, the tow boat captain admitted the fire nearly spread to his boat.

But it is the medical emergencies and rescues where the fireboat's loss is sorely missed. Last month, when a boat carrying Haitian migrants capsized - the Coast Guard asked for the fire boat and divers to help search for the missing. Miami Dade sent its helicopter - but not its boat.

Dave Downey has been with Miami Dade Fore Rescue for 26 years and was picked by Mayor Carlos Gimenez to lead the department last February.

"I have to look at where to prioritize our needs and right now quite frankly I don't have the money available to put this unit in service," he said.

It costs about $2.5 million a year to operate and staff the fireboat 365 days a year - about the same cost as running one fire truck.

Asked if the work the fireboat crews were doing good work, Downey offered a lukewarm endorsement.

"They were running calls and they were providing a service yes," he said.

"Do you have any doubt they were saving lives?" DeFede asked Downey.

"No doubt at all," Downey replied.

Downey, however, would not say if anyone has died in the two years since the boats have been pulled out of the water that might have been saved by the fireboat.

"It would be speculation," he said. "I don't have any direct knowledge of anything."

Asked about the death of Josh Schwabenbauer, Downey replied: "I agree with you, I can't tell you if it would have changed the outcome of this tragedy. But the fact of the matter is we didn't have the resource in service."

But Jack Garcia, who served on the fireboats, says he knows that without the fireboat in service, the future is far less promising.

"If somebody out there needs help they're not going to get it and they're gonna die," he said. "And it's not going to be brought up and they are just going to say they would have died anyway or we don't have that service."

Added Parker: "There is no reason why our politicians, our fire department should not be able to find a way to fund a program like this and help save these lives and continue on with this program."

It was a sentiment echoed by Josh Schwabenbauer's father, Brad: "Something's got to be done man, this is crazy, this is infuriating. To know that that equipment is bought and paid for and fueled up and simply just sits there tied or in dry-dock. It's disgraceful."

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