It was raining around 6 p.m. on March 18. Lightning flashed outside Eckerd Search and Rescue’s (EC-SAR) office at the Waterfront. Several EC-SAR students were getting ready inside, saying their hellos to each other, while some others were by the boats.
“We need to tell them to come in,” Zach Capilitan said. “Not good to be out there near metal docks.”
Capilitan is a part of EC-SAR’s A-2 crew along with ten other students. Their crew assignment determines which days they are on call for 24 hours from 6 p.m. to 6 p.m. the following day. The day they are on call, they start by going to duty crew, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, and to 10 p.m. on weekends.
Due to COVID-19 protocols, four people are allowed on a boat at one time. For more complex calls, more than one boat of people will respond. All members of EC-SAR can opt in or out of certain, more stressful calls.
When they get to the Waterfront, they suit up in their trademark blue EC-SAR jumpsuit. One of the students at duty crew cannot find hers, and searches throughout the rooms for it.
“Honestly,” senior Maria Ferraez, who is a part of C-2 crew, said, “I joined because I saw blue jumpsuits and I was like, ‘Wow, that looks pretty darn cool.’ And then joined it and absolutely fell in love.”
Once geared up, the team members utilize their time on duty crew to monitor their communication system, clean and organize their items and train for future tests. During duty crew, one member of EC-SAR is always in the communications room, one of the computers has the St. Petersburg active emergency calls website pulled up, and another screen has a map of the Tampa Bay Area, with important points labeled, like bridges, boats ramps and docks.
Whenever someone speaks over the radio, the students in the room instinctively quiet and turn their heads to the communication console. Once they realize it is not an emergency, they go back to their tasks. One radio is set to channel 16, the international distress frequency, which is used to call for help, and the other to channel 68, which EC-SAR uses as its main working frequency.
COVID-19 has brought another difficulty to the communication room of EC-SAR. Only four people are allowed in the room at a time, so it is almost a game of musical chairs throughout the watch, when one member needs to come in, another has to leave or stand just outside one of the doorways.
The sounds of Eckerd’s Search and Rescue include boats sailing on the water, local police and coast Guard radio frequencies and, for senior Chandler Brock, the 1992 Mighty Morphin Powers rangers theme, as his ring tone when being called to respond to a rescue call.
Brock is a boat captain on EC-SAR, which is the highest rank a student can usually be. The first thirty seconds of the song is filled with fast bass and guitar, fitting for any high tension situation.
“If I get to this part of the song, it means I am late,” Brock, who is a part of A-1 team, said.
After their time on duty crew, the members of A-2 will be on call throughout the night until 6 p.m. the following night. Capilitan’s theme is “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses.
Almost all members of EC-SAR have a specific ringtone that signals the on-call team that they need to get to the Waterfront in 5 minutes, except for when they have class. Many have found that the standards ring tones or vibrations aren’t alarming enough to alert them fast enough, but songs are perfect.
Once they arrive at the Waterfront, they assess the situation, figuring out what boat would be best for the situation and who should go. For more intense situations, like searching for a person, more senior members of EC-SAR are chosen, like Brock.
EC-SAR had to get creative in order to work during the pandemic. During Block 1 in the fall semester, they were only allowed to respond to cases that involved helping Eckerd students using boats from the Watetrfront Program, compared to their usual range of roughly 500 square miles area around Tampa Bay that includes 10 miles offshore into the Gulf of Mexico. During Block 2, the college administration allowed them to respond to calls as they had in years past.
Director of EC-SAR Ryan Dilkey’s ring tone is “Sail” by AWOLNATION. He has been a part of EC-SAR from essentially 1994, when he was a student here. He came to Eckerd specifically for the search and rescue program.
“There is no other marine maritime search and rescue team that runs a 24/7 operation at an undergraduate college in the nation. What that means for me though is that this is the only place I can do this,” Dilkey said.
EC-SAR has run for over 50 years. It is a non-profit organization, with the 71 students members receiving RSL hours but no academic credit or pay. The program receives most of their funding through donations from individuals in the Tampa Bay community, alumni support and their annual yard sale, which usually raises nearly $15-20 thousand dollars.
Senior Maria Ferraez’s ring tone, the standard Apple alarm, has awoken her and her roommates numerous times throughout her four years at Eckerd.
“It's really interesting because everybody uses it as their alarm sound, so I'll be out at Walmart and it will go off and I just have an absolute moment,” Ferraez said. “I was in Georgia, and somebody had it in a Chick-fil-A and I about died. My heart rate definitely goes up when I hear it. What's the best in the middle of the night though.”
Despite these awakenings and scares she and other ECSAR members experience, Ferraez and others praised the program.
“You hit a lot of those decisive moments where you're like, ‘I need to make two decisions. I either need to call it and go home because I'm just not ready for this, or I need to do my job because I know what my job is.’ Hitting that moment in time, is a huge growing point and everybody has that,” Ferraez said. “You see that with all of our members, they never give up.”
Out on the boat
After the Power Rangers theme, default Apple alarm or any other chosen sound plays, and EC-SAR members enter the Waterfront, they work together to prepare the boat, equipment and plan.
The calls they respond to range from refilling gas, searches for missing boats and people, to medical emergencies, to putting out fires on boat, searching for people and bodies and towing grounded vessels.
A professional company towing a grounded boat can cost over a thousand dollars. EC-SAR will do it for free. Ferraez said she has had elderly people call, as well as Spanish speakers, who communicate with the members of EC-SAR who are fluent in spanish.
“They get pretty crazy [on the phone or radio], usually a lot of times. Even if [your boat is] just disabled, it can seem like you're about to die in that situation,” Ferraez said. “You get people crying on the phone or screaming and you're like, ‘Ma'am. Ma'am. Ma'am. Ma'am, I need to get your position so we can accommodate you.’”
There are also more complicated situations that EC-SAR responds to. Or, as Brock puts it, “We see some s***.”
“Before I concluded my second year on EC-SAR, a human being died in my arms. And that's not even an exaggeration,” Brock said.
Dilkey said that if six of they responded to a situation involving the recovery of a dead body, three of them might need some help processing that, while the other three might wonder what is for lunch in the cafe. Everyone processes traumatic events differently, and this is part of the reason EC-SAR students can opt in or out of more intense calls. They can also take time off, consult the counseling services at the college and also talk to their peers.
“We all signed up for it, and I'm not the only one that's had to deal with stuff like that. People have had worse,” Brock said. “We know what we're getting ourselves into.”
Part of EC-SAR’s training is upperclassmen teaching and having training sessions with underclassmen.
In their duty crew on March 11, Zach Capilitan trained sophomore Addie Band in the communication room. Part of EC-SAR’s training is written and skills tests, but other tests include verbal run throughs with more senior members of the team. When the senior members decide that they pass these tests, they sign off on their binder.
This specific test was what to do when a caller’s boat was out of battery, including troubleshooting to figure out the problem and if a jumpstart or another option would be the solution.
“So I will be your skipper,” Capilitan said. “Skipper” means the captain of the boat, which usually refers to the person driving the boat. He pretends to be someone by Fort Desoto whose engine won’t start.
Band then asked some diagnostic questions, such as if he is in neutral, what the reading on the voltmeter is, which has the voltage of the battery, and if the engine cutoff lanyard is in the ‘ON’ position.
Throughout the training, people start talking on the radio, and Capilitan and the other members stop their training on a dime and look over. There is a pause whenever this happens, and their faces turn serious. When they realize it is not an emergency, they continue their training.
The two then finish the test, and Band passes.
“This is a very important moment for me, you’ll see why in a moment,” Band said.
This was her last task she needed to finish in order to complete the binder, which is one of the requirements to rated, or promoted.
According to junior Tristan Lam, the coordinator leader of EC-SAR who has a song from the anime “Gundam” as his ringtone, the difficulty of EC-SAR’s tests and training forces students to work and study together. Underclassmen are prompted to reach out to and bond with upperclassmen, like Capiliton and Lam, and upperclassmen want to see them succeed.
These study sessions include jeopardy games and upperclassmen sharing study guides they made in the past, according to Band.
“You just create such a unique bond because, not only are you hanging out with each other, but you're helping the greater community around you together,” Band said. “You're interacting with each other in such a different way where you have to rely on each other on the water and off the water you have to trust each other to do what you've been trained to do.”
One of the other rooms is much bigger, with the tables formed in a ‘U’ shape and chairs spaced apart, so many of A-2 crew members are studying different key points in Tampa Bay with a map on the projector. Others are doing homework on their laptops, and one is doing math problems on the whiteboard.
Local knowledge is one of the most difficult, and important, parts of EC-SAR training. Over the area they cover of roughly of 300 - 500 square miles, they need to know everything from bridges, marinas, which are boat shops, to channels, where markers are and the shallowness of some places. Knowing all of this by heart allows EC-SAR members to respond to calls quicker.
Nathan Laing, a senior whose EC-SAR ringtone is “First Call/Reveille,” the military bugle wake-up call, pointed to different areas on the projector. First-year Colin Lang, whose ECSAR ringtone is “Run” by AWOLNATION, tried to name every area Nathan points to. Colin spent eight years of his life on a sailboat after his parents decided to sell everything and travel the world with their children.
When he struggles, everyone gives him hints. One said the location is also a designer brand.
“You are talking to a man who lived on a boat about designer brands,” Colin said.
Nathan then points to the McDonalds at 650 150th Ave. that has a dock.
“The McDock,” Colin said.
“If you write McDock on the test, I am going to cry,” someone else in the room laughs.
Students on EC-SAR come from around the country, and have varying levels of experience as first-years. Junior Sam Gamez is an Eagle Scout, and had some experience on boats through that. Others such as sophomores Jakob Hieser and Band had little experience with boats.
“I really enjoyed [being on boats] but it wasn't something that was like nearby in Central North Carolina,” Band said.
During the fall, EC-SAR students are Phase 1 Trainees. This is when they learn their basics, primarily how to be safe on the water, why they need to wear a life vest and introductory boating knowledge, like which way is starboard.
“It seems elementary, but it's absolutely essential, especially if we have, say, a team member that's from Kansas has never even seen the ocean,” Brock said.
Throughout a student’s time on EC-SAR, they have to pass written and skills tests. 85% or higher is passing for ALL EC-SAR tests. If someone misses that mark, they can appeal up to four times throughout their training to get a re-test.. These range from how to tow a boat that is grounded, to local knowledge.
Unlike Power Rangers, EC-SAR does not have giant robots that fight evil or a designated theme song. But they do have close friendships, they do have jumpsuits and they do save people; the clothes being part of the reason why members like Maria Ferraez joined, and the community within EC-SAR and their service to the community are some other reasons people stay.
These similarities are why Brock chose the 1992 Mighty Morphin Power Rangers theme as his EC-SAR ringtone.
“We essentially are Power Rangers. We're sassy teenagers that go about our lives until suddenly our fancy device starts beeping. We have to run down to base and put on our fancy blue costume so that we can go save the day,” Brock said. “I won't get into the metaphor, we are the closest thing to Power Rangers you can imagine.”