On November 30, 2016, at 10:00 a.m., Jacksonville (FL) Fire Rescue Department (JFRD) received a call from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) marine mammal biologists Nadia Gordon and Allison Perna for assistance in removing a manatee from a storm drain in the 4300 block of Davinci Ave in Jacksonville. It would prove to be the beginning of a six-hour operation that required a multiagency coordinated effort.
West Indian manatees, endangered marine mammals, are found in rivers and creeks in most of Florida. They can be up to 3,000 pounds and 10 to 13 feet long and primarily move in shallow water, feeding on plants along the bottom. Normally known for having a slow, nonaggressive nature, they are often injured by passing motor boat propellers.
The call was directed to the JFRD technical rescue team (TRT), based out of stations 4 and 13. The TRT consists of 12 personnel who are urban search and rescue technicians staffing one heavy rescue, one ladder, and two engines. One special operations district chief is also assigned per shift.
On arrival at the address, the FWC personnel directed team members to a large manatee in the storm drain at the intersection of two residential roadways. Contractors paving the roadway had discovered the animal in the open grated drain, hearing it snorting, as manatees do when surfacing to breathe. There was also a 30-inch manhole access in the center of the intersection as well. It was later found that the manatee had traveled more than a third of a mile from where it had entered the storm drain outflow to the St. Johns River.
The manatee was estimated by FWC to be nine feet long and weigh around 1,000 pounds. It was unable to turn around because of its size, as the concrete pipe was only 36 inches in diameter. An eight-inch sewer pipe bisecting the manhole in the roadway blocked the mammal from moving forward.
After discussions with Gordon and David Baughman of the City of Jacksonville (COJ) Public Works, it was decided the TRT would excavate the concrete drainage pipe, cut off the top half, and move the animal into the opened area and onto a submerged FWC lifting canvas sling. The closest area to attempt this was about 30 feet from where the curbside drain emptied into the system. Public works dispatched a backhoe to assist in the excavation and lifting operation, and the area was checked for the presence of underground utilities prior to any digging. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) provided traffic and crowd control.
During the entire excavation and cutting operation, the manatee was isolated from the work area by blocking the culvert at the curbside access, using one of the FWC canvas pickup slings with poles attached. The FWC biologists monitored the condition of the “patient” during the operation, as there were saws, fans, and excavation equipment working close by. The water level in this drainage system is directly tied to the St. Johns River and, as it is tidal in nature, concern about the outgoing tide draining the water to a level that could prove dangerous to the animal was taken into consideration. The TRT took steps to ensure the level was maintained at an acceptable depth by first constructing out of plywood and salvage covers a coffer dam in one of the drainage junction boxes that was downstream. Then, a five-inch supply hose was attached to a hydrant, upstream, and allowed to flow into the system, keeping enough water in the pipe to allow the animal to float but not allowing water to fill the pipe and potentially drown it.
The concrete pipe was located only 20 inches under the top of the grass area designated for the operation, and members of the team began hand digging with shovels prior to the arrival of the backhoe. The upper third of the pipe was quickly uncovered, and the arrival of the machine allowed the creation of a 12-foot-long working space. As there was an expectation of water flow from the pipe during the operation, a deep sump area was excavated at one end of the area and the TRT’s mud pump was placed into the area to control any water issues.
Prior to starting cutting operations in the area, an incident safety officer was established, air monitoring was put into place, and ventilation fans were set up and turned on. The concrete cutting saws were of both hydraulic and gas-powered systems. There were both rotary and chain saw systems for cutting the concrete used during the operation. Water for the saws was supplied by a nearby house system, and all personnel were wearing bunker pants, gloves, helmets, and eye protection.
As each cut progressed, wooden shims were used to prevent the concrete from collapsing back onto itself and pinching the blades. The cuts had to encompass the entire length of the culvert section, including the connection bell at both ends. Three expansion bolts were drilled into the top to act as lifting points, with two-inch webbing attached using nuts and washers. After all the cuts were completed and the saws removed from the area, one firefighter handled the rigging and lifting operation. One of the expansion bolts failed under the weight of the estimated 1,100-pound lift, and plan “B” was placed into action. Using the shims to gain purchase, and levering one end of the top upward with long pry bars, a lifting sling was maneuvered into place at one end. The backhoe picked up that end, and a second lifting sling was placed to carry the entire piece out of the area.
One of the large FWC capture slings was placed into the water in the newly made opening, and a rope was pushed through the culvert using a 2½-inch hose, capped and inflated with air, and placed on the tail of the animal, under the direction of the FWC officers. The manatee was pulled backward onto the submerged sling and then wrapped and hoisted by the backhoe. The manatee was placed into the back of the waiting FWC truck for transport to a waiting care facility at SeaWorld in Orlando. The animal was rehabilitated at the facility and reintroduced back into the St. Johns River system on January 4, 2017.
The culvert system was repaired by the COJ storm water personnel, replacing the cut-off portion, sealing it back into service, and replacing the dirt that had been excavated, all before night had set in. The interaction and planning between JFRD and Public Works, prior to the cutting operations by the TRT, made it possible to have almost no cost to the community in the repair of the system.
Coordination between multiple agencies was necessary to result in the successful rescue of this 950-pound mammal. COJ Public Works, JFRD TRT, FWC, and JSO all were in close communication, and as the incident became a media and community event, information was shared between agencies. FWC and JFRD provided updates on the different aspects of the operation to the media, as a coordinated effort.
In today’s media-hungry population, any incident can take on its own life, as seen by this incident’s coverage worldwide via the various streaming methods available, with more than 80 news outlets providing live images. Emergency responders must account for and should prepare for that, and if properly handled, a positive image for everyone can be achieved, along with executing the primary goal of saving life - no matter what the form.
Robin R. Gainey is a 37-year veteran of the fire service and a member of the Jacksonville (FL) Fire Rescue Department. He is a district chief in suppression and is the special operations duty chief for A shift, after a six-year stint as a captain on the local technical rescue team. Gainey has a master’s degree in public administration from the University of North Florida.