FELLSMERE — At 69 years old, Fellsmere’s first police volunteer Al Suarez has a brand spanking new (to him) baby – a retired police cruiser that’s had a new paint job, new red and amber lights installed, and even new decals specifying the car’s “volunteer” service.
Suarez may be a bit obsessive over the cruiser, which was donated by the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office, but he can’t help it.
“That’s my baby!” he said of the volunteer cruiser, which replaced a 4×4 truck he had been driving, running errands for the Fellsmere Police Department and driving the streets, being the eyes and ears for the sworn officers.
“It’s beautiful. I enjoy getting behind the wheel.”
The downside to driving around Fellsmere in the 2008 Chevy Impala? Dirt roads, Suarez said, explaining he can’t stand getting the car dirty.
Fortunately for him, the Fellsmere Police Department has another volunteer – not one who patrols streets, but instead washes the fleet, including the new volunteer cruiser.
Fellsmere Police Chief Keith Touchberry explained that the volunteer program is very much a collective effort between the department and the community.
Suarez became the first trained volunteer in December 2013 and, only now, the department has a second in training and a couple more applicants under consideration.
Volunteers must undergo training and be outfitted; if performing certain tasks such as traffic control, volunteers need certain certifications – all of which Suarez has completed.
Touchberry reached out to the business community for help in converting the Okeechobee County cruiser into a Fellsmere Police Volunteer cruiser.
“It was always one of the things we [planned to] get around to,” Touchberry said of getting a proper vehicle for Suarez.
To that end, the chief asked the Florida Public Safety Institute’s Charles Kane if he could put the word out statewide for any unused but still usable vehicles.
Within two days, Kane put him in touch with the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office, which had four unneeded vehicles – two Chevy Impalas and two Ford Crown Victorias.
Because the Fellsmere Police Department is converting its fleet from Ford to Chevy, Touchberry selected the 2008 Impala.
All Pro Paint and Body of Vero Beach volunteered its services to paint the car in the Fellsmere Police Department color scheme, while Communications International, also of Vero Beach, agreed to swap out the police red and blue lights for the volunteer red and amber. Stuart-based Graphic Designs International did the decal work.
In all, the Fellsmere Police Department spent less than $500 on the vehicle, including the transfer of title.
“People need help sometime,” said Gary Richards, co-owner of All Pro Paint and Body, explaining why he responded to the chief’s request.
“It’s not a big deal,” Richards added, noting that the company also paints vehicles in the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office fleet from time to time.
As for the volunteer program itself, Touchberry said he expects the police department to be able to outfit a total of four volunteers by the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1, but he doesn’t expect to have four volunteers ready until closer to the start of 2015.
Volunteer Suarez’s responsibilities currently include being a runner for the department, driving to and from the court house with paperwork, driving to fleet management to assist in transporting parts or vehicles, as well as helping to control traffic as needed.
When more volunteers come on board, Touchberry said they would be sent out in pairs to perform house checks for those requesting the service.
But the main job volunteers are tasked with is observation – driving down city streets, talking with residents and business owners. They are not to engage with criminals, simply observe, report and monitor as safety allows.
“I’m basically the eyes of the department,” Suarez said.