Whether or not the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department ever had a dive rescue team, the man credited for decades for leading such a squad says his services and equipment are no longer available.
Rob Bleser, who served as volunteer captain of the Water Emergency Team since 1999, resigned from that position Monday night during the regularly scheduled meeting of the special taxing district that oversees the budgets of Key Largo’s fire department and Ambulance Corps.
“I appreciate having been able to serve my community via the fire service for so many years,” Bleser told the five-member commission of the Key Largo Fire-Rescue and Emergency Medical Services District.
The move coincides with a lawsuit filed by the family of Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart, who went missing in late January deep diving on a film shoot six miles off Islamorada and whose body was found by a dive team led by Bleser on Feb. 3.
But the department insists the issue has to do with workers’ compensation insurance, or lack thereof, and is not related in any way to the lawsuit.
For the two months that followed Stewart’s recovery, the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department’s dive team received international acclaim as the outfit that found Stewart. That included official statements from the U.S. Coast Guard.
But by late March, the department officially distanced itself from Bleser, saying he has nothing to do with the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department.
Bleser is a long-time diver and owns Quiescence Diving Services. Part of the reason his more than a dozen recovery operations are so successful and he is called on by agencies like the Coast Guard and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office is he coordinates responses with the local dive community based on the expertise needed for the specific mission at hand.
This means Bleser’s divers are often not certified firefighters and members of the fire department, and for this reason, the department’s attorney, Jack Bridges, said the department can’t assume legal responsibility for those people, especially when it comes to workers’ compensation insurance should someone get hurt on the job.
‘It’s ... insurance’
“This isn't about Rob Bleser or any individual,” Bridges said in an email Tuesday. “It's about insurance, plain and simple. It's about protecting the fire department and the citizens of Key Largo from liability.”
But Bleser has operated this way since 1999, he thought, under the auspices of being part of the fire department.
Now that the department made it clear there is no dive team, Bleser — who volunteers without reimbursement and donated much of the scuba gear and a boat used by the department — said look elsewhere the next time someone goes missing in the waters off the Keys.
“Effective immediately, I will no longer accept any responsibility or positions as captain of the Water Emergency Team,” Bleser said in a statement he read at Monday’s meeting. “The Water Emergency Team’s Special Response Group, made up of local dive industry professionals, shall be disbanded.”
Bleser said he also wants his equipment and boat back. And since the department says he’s not a member, he’s giving back all the gear and decals the district provided him indicating he’s a Key Largo firefighter.
“All emergency use of Fire Boat 25 shall cease, the diving equipment on loan in Water Rescue 25 shall be returned to Quiescence, and the equipment owned by he district shall be returned to the district, including the light bar, siren, portable fire pump, backboard, two mobile radios, two portable radios, one alert pager, my personal bunker gear, and my keys/entry card to both fire stations. The fire department decals and shields installed on the boat by the fire department shall be removed,” he wrote to the district.
Bridges said the sudden distance placed between the department and Bleser also has nothing to do with the Stewart family’s wrongful death lawsuit filed in Broward County Circuit Court against Horizon Dive Adventures — which owns the dive boat and employs the crew that took Stewart offshore the day he disappeared — and Peter Sotis, the man who trained and provided Stewart with the rebreather gear he used to deep dive the wreck of the Queen of Nassau Jan.31.
But while saying the lawsuit and the department now distancing itself from the dive team are unrelated, Bridges acknowledged it became urgent to set the record straight following a public records request for files related to the dive team by a private investigator working for an attorney representing Sotis in a public relations capacity.
“We want to avoid that happening again in the future,” Bridges said.
Sotis also dove with Stewart that day and became disoriented when the pair surfaced from their third 225-feet deep dive. While Stewart’s colleagues and the Horizon crew tended to Sotis, Stewart, 37, sank and could not be found for three days.
The commissioners, fearful of losing Bleser’s services, instructed Theron Simmons, the district’s legal counsel, to research the possibility of finding affordable workers comp insurance and will consider ways that it could be paid for by the district and not the department.
But with the exception of Commissioner George Mirabella, they agreed that the fire department could no longer assume responsibility for a dive team, and probably never should have.
“What we did in 1988, we can’t do today,” said Commissioner Tony Allen. “Laws have changed.”
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204