Bay Area college students on standby for lifesaving water rescues

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While many in the Tampa Bay area are gearing up for a busy summer of boating, tubing, or fishing, one special group of college students is standing by in case you need help. 

At the southern tip of St. Petersburg, students at Eckerd College’s Search and Rescue program, or EC-SAR, are busy training for that next life-saving call. Year-round, they respond to rescue calls from distressed boaters on Tampa Bay and the gulf.

It’s not a degree-based program, however. These students do this purely for extra credit and volunteer hours.    

It’s far from your typical extra credit course in college. It’s a tremendous commitment.

A team of students remains on standby 24 hours a day so they can be geared up and on the water responding to emergency calls in five minutes or less. And they serve a three-county region -- Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee -- covering 600 nautical miles.

“It says a lot about these students,” said their instructor, Ryan Dilkey. “The type of students that gravitate towards this want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Roisin Burke, a student who came from Connecticut to study business management, says it’s changed her life.

Student Steve Weichman has come to Eckerd all the way from Minneapolis to study marine biology. “It's really good to see a bunch of college students making a difference,” he said.

There’s nothing else like it in the country. This is the only marine search and rescue program at any college or university in the nation. And they stay busy.

Last year, EC-SAR’s team responded to 618 calls, helped more than 800 people and recovered $6.2-million worth of property. 

But they may be proudest of their graduates, many of whom have gone one to careers in law enforcement, the military or emergency management after realizing how much they enjoy their life saving work on the bay.

Quite a few have ended up joining the Coast Guard. That’s where Weichman is now leaning. “And that’s not something I ever would have expected,” he continued.

It’s a higher calling that also altered the career path of Dilkey, their instructor. 

"I loved it so much I just stayed with it,” Dilkey said. He then took over the program in 2006 and been the program instructor ever since, while also serving as a member of the U.S. coast Guard.

LINK: If you’d like to learn more about Eckerd College’s EC-SAR program, please visit: