As an unfortunate Florida cable worker, a man in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., and an Iraqi girl discovered last month, when bit by a venomous snake, antidote or expertise might not come from a hospital, but rather the Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Department.
For more than a decade, the department has employed a small team of experts in poisonous snakes, spiders and marine life and maintained an eclectic stash of medicine from producers across the globe. The stockpile of anti-venom—for rattlesnakes, cottonmouth snakes, coral snakes, pit vipers, scorpions, black widows and much, much more—is the nation's only bank maintained for public use, according to the fire department.
The anti-venom team got its start thanks to one firefighter's interest and grew as a result of demand, says Capt. Ernie Jillson, who oversees the unit. Florida's native species, exotic species imported through Miami and venomous stowaways in shipping containers spur local emergency calls, but the unit has also fielded calls from 35 states and five countries, he says. In August, Jillson consulted with doctors on a U.S. Army base in Iraq who were treating a girl with a lethal saw-scaled viper bite. Earlier that month, the unit supplied anti-venom for an eastern coral snakebite and a 44-year-old Comcast worker bit by a green mamba snake. Through 2008, the unit had had 1,039 “envenomation” calls, according to its Web site, bit.ly/JKqoC.
Perhaps the crew's most essential and elusive skill is identifying which type of serpent bit the victim. (The team advises victims to safely observe identifying traits but cautions against trying to catch or kill a snake. Also: Don't drink or apply alcohol.) “I don't think you could find a handful of people who could take a description from a terrified person” and identify the animal and its origins, says Capt. Charles Seifert, one of the crew.