Report shows deficiencies in emergency response during Ala. deputy's drowning

Four rescue swimmers with the Gulf Shores FD, as well as the Coast Guard, assisted in the water rescue that left Baldwin County Deputy Bill Smith dead


John Sharp
al.com

GULF SHORES, Ala. — An incident report by the Gulf Shores Police Department paints a troubling picture of the training and response during last year’s chaotic rescues and the tragic drowning of a Baldwin County Sheriff’s deputy on the Fort Morgan peninsula.

The report is also being referred to by Gulf Shores Police Chief Ed Delmore as illustrative proof that a professional emergency response team, including trained lifeguards, is needed on the unincorporated peninsula west of the Gulf Shores city limits.

It took 20 to 23 minutes for the rescue swimmers with the Gulf Shores Fire Department to arrive at the scene last year.
It took 20 to 23 minutes for the rescue swimmers with the Gulf Shores Fire Department to arrive at the scene last year. (Photo/Gulf Shores Fire Department)

Four trained rescue swimmers, with the Gulf Shores Fire Department, played pivotal roles in getting people out of the rough Gulf surf on June 6, 2021. The peninsula’s beaches – a mix of private beaches, federal, state and county property – are protected by a volunteer fire department, none who have lifeguard certification. It took anywhere between 20-23 minutes for the rescue swimmers from Gulf Shores to arrive at the scene on West Dune Drive toward the tip of the peninsula.

“By whatever vehicle it happens, there needs to be professional services there,” Delmore said.

Fort Morgan Volunteer Fire Department representatives say they have not seen the incident report, which was completed last September.

Michael Ludvigsen, who was the acting fire chief at the time and is the current president of the board of the volunteer fire department, said he was instructed to obtain a court order to receive a copy of it.

Delmore said the report would not have been released until after a grand jury met, which was “months ago.” He said no one with the volunteer fire department has asked him for a copy of the report.

Chaotic scene

The report unfurls the chaos occurring on the peninsula one year ago. Ten swimmers were listed in the report as having some state of distress. Five were taken to the hospital.

Baldwin County Deputy William “Bill” Smith, 57, who died from accidental drowning, was the only fatality.

Smith and Deputy Sydney Wentworth, both who were credited with saving a life, were part of a newly assembled beach patrol unit set up by the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Department. The new unit was formed that March as a response to the Fort Morgan Volunteer Fire Department’s position in 2020, that it was not going to regularly patrol the beaches, according to the report.

Smith and Wentworth were assigned to a “mission outside the customary scope of law enforcement,” according to the report. Neither were certified lifeguards, and the report suggests Smith used his own personal funds to purchase a rescue buoy, masks, snorkel and other equipment.

Smith was among the first people on the scene and rushed into the Gulf and saved the life of 19-year-old Dante Reed, a beach attendant at a nearby condo who had attempted to rescue a distressed swimmer – Adrienne Korecky — but got into trouble himself. At the time of Smith’s arrival, according to the report, four people were in the Gulf and struggling with the rough surf.

Smith gave Reed a floatation device that save his life. Without it, according to the incident report, “Reed would most certainly have drowned.”

But Smith and Reed were in the Gulf for almost 40 minutes, according to the report, until they were brought back to shore by rescue swimmers with the Gulf Shores Fire Department.

Wentworth, meanwhile, was credited with saving Korecky’s life. Korecky and her sister, Heather Ronney, initially entered the Gulf to save their father, William Watkins, who was the first of the swimmers in distress, according to the report. Watkins and Ronney left the water primarily under their own power.

Two more of the Gulf Shores recuse swimmers swam out to Wentworth, Korecky and a third swimmer – Bobby Marlowe – to make sure they were OK before a U.S. Coast Guard boat arrived to pull them out from the water.

The report says that an engine company with the Gulf Shores Fire Department arrived and took over the incident command.

The rescue swimmers, also from the department, arrived either by their own personal vehicles or on a jet ski and began rescuing the distressed swimmers, including two members with the Fort Morgan Volunteer Fire Department who attempted to assist other swimmers who ran out int the Gulf and also got into distress.

According to the report, a Gulf Shores fire engine company arrived 20 minutes after receiving a call for assistance and took control of the incident command. The engine company responded from a station that was 17.3 miles away from West Dune Drive.

Said Delmore, “It takes a while for us to get there. It took a while for our heroic fire personnel to get there with the people who had the right training and willingness to put themselves out there, along with assistance from the Coast Guard and they were coming from a great distance, too.”

Uncertainty, lack of training

The report also showed there were holes in how the Fort Morgan Volunteer Fire Department handled the emergency.

Among the issues was uncertainty over who was in charge of the department. According to the report, Craig Rohman, the department’s current chief, took over incident command from Ludvigsen, who was on the roof of nearby condos at the time but was unable to see much of the situation as it unfolded. Ludvigsen, according to the report, was working security for the condos at the time of the call.

Ludvigsen, according to the report, told investigators that at the time that the agency had no chief, assistant chief or lieutenants and that people are “calling upon him” to lead the agency.

“The command and leadership structure of the FMVFD is unclear,” the incident report states. Rohman, a former battalion chief and EMT in Mt. Zion, became the department’s current chief last July.

There were six volunteer firefighters at the scene, but crucial life-saving equipment was not available, according to the report.

An “Emily” rescue device was left at the fire station. Also, there was no sufficient manpower available to retrieve and launch the department’s jet ski, the report says.

A jet ski later arrived, but it was driven by the Gulf Shores rescue swimmers. The two swimmers drove it approximately 18 miles in “deteriorating surf conditions to assist in the rescue.”

None of the unincorporated peninsula is patrolled by the city of Gulf Shores. The city’s emergency units serve as a backup whenever called upon. The report suggests that it was Smith who called for assistance to Gulf Shores.

“This is a case example of how when lives are at stake and an issue is occurring down there, we’re going to do the best we can to assist,” Delmore said.

The report also indicates that the Fort Morgan volunteer firefighters found the personal watercraft they owned was “too challenging” to operate, and that it had not been used for at least one year.

The medical response was also lacking, the report indicates. Reed, who was the most injured, was not evacuated to a hospital until more than an hour after he was rescued.

The U.S. Coast Guard evacuated two swimmers – Korecky and Marlow - to Dauphin Island. Wentworth returned to shore to check on Smith, according to the report.

“Had the Coast Guard not made the operational decision to evacuate the two victims they rescued to Dauphin Island, the medical resources on the scene would have been severely overwhelmed,” the report says. “Medstar dispatched three ambulances which arrived 30 minutes, 45 minutes and 95 minutes after the initiating call for service.”

Volunteers or professional services?

Rohman declined to comment about the incident report, which Ludvigsen says the department has yet to see.

Rohman said his agency has 15 volunteer firefighters, who respond to emergencies “when they are available and not at their regular full-time job.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a certified lifeguard or rescue swimmers,” he said.

Rohman said most of the firefighters are trained to use the equipment. He said that training has occurred for the operation of a brand-new self-powered rescue device called a Dolphin 1 that the agency recently purchased.

“The previous unit we had was basically a flotation device, a remote device that someone could hold on to and we can get them to shore,” said Rohman. “The unit we have purchased has the capability to bring people in and has the power to pull someone out of the water.”

He added, “The majority of our people have been trained on it. We’ll have several training sessions on it until everyone is familiar (with using it).”

Delmore said he simply believes a volunteer fire department that “draws from the area’s population” is not “significant enough to generate enough qualified people” to support the emergency needs of the peninsula.

The area, he said, continues to grow in population and explodes in activity during the summer months when vacationers arrive.

“It’s beyond the scope of what a volunteer fire department can handle,” Delmore said. “There area is growing, but the services on the fire side, are not growing with it. It’s a concern.”

One solution, offered by Alabama State Senator Chris Elliott, R- Daphne, is to institute a lodging tax increase paid by vacationers staying in beach rental houses within the peninsula. The lodging tax rate in Fort Morgan is 6%, which is far less than what renters pay in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Both cities recently adopted 3 percentage point increases in their lodging tax rates, taking their respective overall rates to 16%.

But critics of placing more emergency personnel on Fort Morgan say the peninsula is a complicated setting and where a team of lifeguards might not make much of a difference. They argue also there is no concentrated area where tourists gather, such as a public beach. In addition, there is no flag warning system on the beaches unlike what exists in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, by contrast, include a mix of public beaches that attract large crowds, and high-rise condos that also increase the density along their beachfronts.

There are no high-rise condos anywhere on the peninsula.

Officials in coastal Alabama have increase communication this year by advertising new programs such as the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism’s “BEach SAFE” campaign aimed at creating awareness among visitors and residents about beach conditions, warning flags, etc.

“We’ve become more proactive in our messaging and trying to educate and even enforce than what we have done in previous years,” Delmore said. “The number of tourists continues to increase and people just don’t know how dangerous (the Gulf) can be.”

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