350 FLORIDA GARBAGE TRUCK DRIVERS TRAINED TO SNITCH ON CITIZENS

BY SONJA ISGER – PALM BEACH POST STAFF WRITER

They troll streets in the wee hours, they know the neighborhoods and they know when something’s amiss. And now they want you to know, the garbage man has got your back.

With the support and blessing of several local police departments and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, Waste Management trained 200 drivers Wednesday morning to be active in calling authorities when they witness crimes or suspicious activity.

The training is part of Waste Management’s company-wide program called Waste Watch that operates much like neighborhood watches throughout the country.

“Because they’re in the neighborhoods twice a week, they know what belongs there,” said Sheriff Ric Bradshaw. “It’s all about getting people to report things that are suspicious.”

Bradshaw’s last proposal in the watch-thy-neighbor vein drew a bit of backlash recently.

The $1 million “violence prevention intervention” program earned legislative budget approval, but awaits the governor’s signature. It would create teams of deputies, mental health professionals and caseworker to respond to citizen calls to a 24-hour hotline. Neighbors, friends and family would be encouraged to call the number if they fear someone could harm themselves or others.

When word spread, the governor’s office received more than 200 emails requesting he use a line-item veto to kill the program that sounded a bit too “Big Brother” to some.

Bradshaw said Wednesday the push back came from people whose understanding of the program was taken out of context. Further, he said, this program may offend the same folks, though it shouldn’t.

Instead Bradshaw said, the Waste Management program is simply an extension of existing neighborhood and business watches that have been operating in the county for years.

Waste Management’s program began in 2004, when the federal government was on alert fearing an attack on several high profile targets including the FleetCenter in Boston and Madison Square Garden in New York City, where political conventions were scheduled.

Both venues have the trash taken out by Waste Management, explained Joe Vidovich, who was director of company security and oversaw the creation of Waste Watch. The federal officials wanted to train drivers to be particularly alert to security risks.

Drivers are told not to intervene if they see a violent act, an abandoned car or suspicious activity. But they should call company dispatchers or 911 without delay.

“There’s a tendency to want to call it in at the end of the shift, but the end of the shift might be too late,” Vidovich said.

Based in Houston, Waste Management reports Florida is home to the biggest presence of drivers who have received a morning of training and passed a 20-question test to be certified.

Waste Management drivers from Palm Beach Gardens through the Treasure Coast were trained nearly two years ago, creating a total of 350 trained drivers in the region, said company spokeswoman Dawn McCormick.

The company reports that drivers have reported vandals, helped douse car fires and administered first aid.

In June 2011, in Collier County a driver on his pre-dawn residential route spotted a 4-year-old alone and crying on a sidewalk. The driver, German Sarmiento, was able to get the child to point to his home and knocked on the door until his mother awoke.

Last year, a driver in Miami-Dade County working a commercial route smelled smoke.

“He got out of his truck, walked the area and called authorities,” McCormick said. Firefighters found a man asleep in a burning building. If they hadn’t found him he would have succumbed to smoke inhalation, she said.

“We have not had an issue or complaint since we initiated this program,” Vidovich said.

And the drivers get something out of it too, he said: “It builds self-esteem when people ask you to help watch their back or protect them. It’s a feel-good for them.”