SAN DIEGO— Upon methodically tying the patrol vessel to the docks off Shelter Island Drive, Cpl. Victor Banuelos quickly stops mid-sentence, yanks the walkie from his navy-blue police uniform and motions to his partner Robert Adotto.
The voice on the other end of the handheld device, a female dispatcher, informs the crew of a possible jumper on the Coronado Bridge.
And while the directive turns out as a false alarm, Banuelos, a veteran Bay Control officer with San Diego Harbor Police, and Adotto don’t succumb to chance, opting to hop back on the vessel and guard the waters under the bridge for the better part of an hour.
Today, Banuelos and Adotto’s hull is one of the 36-foot Firestorms, equipped with a full outfit of firefighting and diving gear and tools. The boat is capable of pumping out 18,000 gallons of water per minute in an effort to combat raging flames. Inside the vessel, a fire control panel, a computer database and a full-range of navigational equipment assist in the officers’ main objective— keeping the bay safe. The boat also houses three air packs, fire axes, scuba tanks, and PFDs.
“The main objective of the day is to be ready for any type of situation where we can help someone,” Banuelos said.
San Diego Harbor Police, home to 121 sworn officers, patrols five cities on a fleet of five Firestorms and three SAFE boats—individually manned by the dive team—comprised of 20 officers—law enforcement operators and the Reserve Senior Volunteer Patrol Program (RSVP).
Amid his typical 10 hour workday, Banuelos and crew monitor boater registration, fishing licenses, proper PFD use and boats speeding through restricted waters. Together they patrol the bay at all hours for any illegal activity, assist with bay fires, bridge jumpers, water rescues and more.
Banuelos also has administrative duties, including coordinating schedules for Operation Stonegarden, assisting the Coast Guard and Port of San Diego and responding to desk calls from boaters.
“He’s very knowledgeable about the bay and about the people that live on the bay,” said Adotto, who has served on the force for 17 years “If the department or I have a question about someone, I’ll ask Victor and he knows them.”
Banuelos’, a San Diego native, has always had an interest in boating, while also enjoying scuba diving, fishing, kayaking and snorkeling. Still, his joining the force came through mere happenstance.
After working at the San Diego Zoo, Banuelos said one of his friends asked him to apply to the department. He was quickly hired and soon worked his way up through the ranks, powered by his motivation to work outside and serve the public.
“You never know what uniform you’re going to wear when you’re in my position,” Banuelos said. “Literally, I can go from a police uniform to a wet suit or to fire turnouts. That’s what really keeps me super interested. Every day is different.”
Similar to Banuelos, all Harbor Police officers undergo a boat test, on-the-job training, a mandatory 40 hours behind the wheel with an instructor and a practical and written test. Officers also attend a six-month police academy. Field training follows, where the Harbor Police work patrol, the airport, vessel patrol and attend marine firefighting school and a boat crewman school. It is there where officers are trained how to operate a vessel.
While Banuelos admits there are times when traffic in the bay is slow, if an emergency, such as a fire, were to occur, his team would be there in minutes.
“We literally take our uniforms off, get in our underwear and change over to our fire turnouts,” Banuelos said.
Banuelos said in the rare occasions things get hairy, he, along with the other officers, are thoroughly trained to remain calm.
“I still get enough of a bump in adrenaline,” Banuelos said. “We train to stay as focused as possible, but at the same time there’s what’s called tunnel vision where you’re in the moment. You have to fight that off and still be aware of your surroundings.”