Posted On: June 24, 2019
Tami Fields searches through illegally dumped garbage to find clues to the violator's identity.
When she’s not hard at work, Tami Lake and her husband often can be found communing with Mother Nature while engaged in some of their favorite pursuits – fishing, four-wheeling and frolicking in the mountains.
As an avid outdoor enthusiast, Lake is aggravated when people disrespect the natural environment and use it as a dumping ground for everything from household trash and lawn debris to used furniture and appliances, construction rubble, tires, medical waste and just about anything else you can think of. Fortunately for Tami – and the residents of Volusia County – she has a job where she can actually do something about it.
Meet Volusia County Solid Waste Management Compliance Officer Tami Lake. Think of an enforcement officer, teacher, environmental advocate, litter sleuth and goodwill ambassador all rolled into one, and you begin to get an idea of just how many hats the county’s four-member solid waste compliance team wears while patrolling the community and working to clean up the environment and stop litterers in their tracks. It’s all that and a whole lot more. But for Officer Lake, public safety is always job one.
“I think for any county employee, our first duty is to keep people safe,” said Lake. “Safety is absolutely our number one priority.”
And make no mistake about it: Litter and illegal dumping aren’t just eyesores. In many ways, it’s a matter of public safety. For example, when a truck is overflowing with objects or hauling a load that isn’t properly covered and debris is spewing out the back, it could cause vehicles behind it to stop short or swerve out of their lane and into oncoming traffic. While this type of littering may be accidental, the consequences nevertheless could be deadly. That’s why litter checkpoints and truck inspections are a big part of the job.
Lake explains it this way to drivers who get stopped for inspection: “What if a branch flies out the back of your truck and hits the car behind you? What if it was your family in that vehicle?” Lake asks them. “Once you put it in that perspective for them, people understand. We have these rules for a reason.”
According to Regina Montgomery, Volusia County’s solid waste and recycling director, that’s public education is one of the compliance officers’ most important tasks. Every citizen contact is an opportunity to explain safety, the law and the rules of proper waste disposal. After all, having Lake and the rest of her team out patrolling the community could prevent the next environmental eyesore from spoiling Volusia’s landscape. It could even prevent a tragedy.
“If we can stop it from happening, then the compliance officer has done their job,” Montgomery said.
Whether it’s Florida’s litter law, Volusia’s solid waste ordinance, commercial recycling ordinances or the guidelines for residential trash pickup, Lake has been enforcing solid waste rules as a county compliance officer for nearly five years. It’s a job that she loves and one that clearly suits her.
“I love being outside,” said Lake. “I love meeting people, and I love trying to help people. It’s incredibly satisfying for me.”
On a recent day, Lake’s shift began routinely enough. Ordinarily, she spends the first 20-30 minutes in the office, checking her computer for any new complaints that have come in about illegal dumping or residential trash pickup services. She also checks to see what prior cases need more investigating or a violator who needs follow-up contact to make sure the problem has been cleaned up. There are approximately 315 tire dealers in the county, and Lake and her team are responsible for inspecting each one annually. So she checks to see which ones are ready for their annual inspection. And she checks to see what dumping hot spots in her assigned quadrant need to be patrolled.
Then with a quick nod and a parting “have a good day, guys, be safe” salutation to the rest of her team – officers Wallace Bailey, Andrew Millwater and their supervising officer, Jerry Peterson – Lake is headed out the door and to her mobile workplace, a white GMC Sierra 1500. But despite her well placed plans, what will happen when she gets out into the field is anyone’s guess. It’s one of those jobs where you never know from one day to the next what you’re going to encounter. And Lake likes it that way.
“In this job, no day is like another,” she said. “It keeps things interesting.”
Aside from working in the great outdoors and doing something she finds extremely interesting and fulfilling, Lake says the teamwork and camaraderie are also what makes the job so rewarding. Everyone on the team works together, helps each other out, has each other’s back and approaches their job with dedication and professionalism. It’s a necessity when you have a small unit and so much ground to cover.
“It’s an extremely close-knit group. We look out for each other,” said Lake. “We’re like a little family, and that makes you happy to be at work and doing your job.”
On this particular day, Lake’s first stop was to check out a new complaint about the dumping of flooring materials along High Ridge Drive in Samsula. It doesn’t take her long to find the small, offending pile. And that’s where the aggravation factor can come into play. Why would someone do this? Certainly not to avoid the expense – it costs just $4 to dispose of an entire load of flooring materials at the county landfill. More likely, it’s laziness and disrespect – disrespect for the rules, disrespect for the community and residents and disrespect for the environment. Instantly transitioning into investigative mode, Lake stops the truck, gets out and dons a pair of blue, latex gloves and starts picking through the pile in search of clues that might help her identify the culprit.
“Often times, we’ll find a piece of mail or receipt or something in a pile like this that we’ll tie to a potential violator – a lead we can follow,” explains Lake.
But not this time. Lake stops a neighbor to find out if they saw who dumped the debris. She posts bright orange warning signs about the penalties for illegal dumping – which includes a $500 fine – and marks the pile with spray paint. That way, other officers who pass by will know Lake has been there. More importantly, she said, “whoever is doing this will know the area is being actively monitored.”
She’ll also try to identify the innocent owner of the property that’s become an inadvertent dumping gounds and work with them to get it cleaned up. And she’ll be back; Lake has added the area to her list of hot spots that get frequent visits from her. At any given time, she has about a dozen locations on the list – known trouble spots in southeast Volusia she checks on at least once or twice a week while out on patrol. All the compliance officers have their lists. As one problem area gets cleaned up and drops off their list, new ones pop up and get added. It’s the nature of the job. And with just four officers, you can’t be everywhere.
“We try to get a good overview of our sector every week,” Lake said. “But Volusia County is huge. So you try your best to stay on top of your worst areas.”
Another important aspect of the compliance officers’ job is overseeing the contract with the waste hauler that picks up trash from more than 46,000 residences within the county’s jurisdiction. Each complaint is investigated by Lake and her team. Sometimes, it turns out that the hauler skipped a house or left a mess. Other times, residents didn’t follow the rules for how and where and when to set out their trash. In either case, it requires some helpful educating by the compliance officers to resolve the matter. And it’s also an important check and balance to ensure that residents are getting all the trash services to which they’re entitled.
Lake’s next stop this day is at a residence on Turnbull Bay Road. No one’s at the house, where she had spotted a huge mound of yard debris five days earlier piled up dangerously close to the roadway. The mound doesn’t comply with the pickup rules, so it just sits there on the highly traveled, dark, narrow and winding street. It’s not hard to imagine a passing vehicle clipping the pile and going into a deadly tailspin.
“That’s a safety issue. It’s a serious hazard,” she points out as she posts a warning notice on the front door.
They’ll be getting another visit from Lake in five days to make sure the mess has been cleaned up. Voluntary compliance is always the preferred outcome. But for repeat violators or those who refuse to come into compliance, Lake won’t hesitate to whip out her citation book and issue a fine. In fact, two of her cases were so egregious, they resulted in felony charges and jail time for the perpetrators.
But’s that’s rare, insists Montgomery, the waste and recycling director. “Our compliance officers explain their authority, and for the most part, we achieve compliance.”
And Lake agrees: “I’d rather be educational in my approach. It may require extra effort or an extra check back, but I always try to end my interactions on a positive note. Compliance is the ultimate goal.”
On this particular day, there’s another rarity. Lake and her supervisor, Peterson, drive to the Sheriff’s Office in DeLand to drop off several bags of evidence. While investigating some illegal dumping, compliance officers discovered that the debris they had recovered came from two stolen vehicles. So the evidence was turned over to sheriff’s detectives in the hopes it will help them make criminal cases against the thieves.
Afterwards, Lake heads back to the southeast part of the county to check on some of her hot spots. But even while driving cross-county, Lake is never just routinely traveling from point A to point B. Instead, she’s constantly scanning the landscape, sides of the roads and the woods-line for signs of illegal dumping. It’s such an ingrained habit, both unconscious and continuous.
“I do it even when I’m not at work, you can’t turn it off, she said.”
While on proactive patrol along Cow Creek Road in Edgewater, Lake notices some scattered household garbage. And this time, she finds an address label that leads her to a house just down the street. She isn’t able to make contact with anyone there, but she leaves word with a neighbor for them to call her. It’s not clear whether the trash was intentionally dumped or perhaps dragged there by animals before the garbage trucks made their pickup. But either way, the resident is responsible for their trash until it gets picked up and Lake will make sure the pile gets removed. The incident also helps explain why Lake is so meticulous and tenacious.
“With littering, you can’t always immediately tell what’s deliberate and what’s accidental,” she said. “You have to follow every lead you get. You investigate from start to finish and see where the leads take you.”
Lake and her fellow officers have a modern, new tool to help them track down those leads – game cameras. They’re deployed in areas where there has been documented dumping problems. Already, the cameras have proven their worth by capturing invaluable images of tag numbers or vehicles at dump sites.
Despite the best efforts of the compliance officers, not every interaction ends positively. Sometimes they encounter people who are angry and belligerent. The compliance officers aren’t sworn officers and don’t carry weapons. Their tools are their training, verbal skills and the law. Two times in the past two years, deputies had to be called in to help ensure that things didn’t get out of control. Fortunately, those instances are rare. But they do happen, and the compliance team must stay on their toes, watch out for each other and be ready for anything.
Asked about the issue, Montgomery puts it diplomatically: “People are very passionate about their garbage.”
Overwhelmingly, though, residents seem to appreciate the job the compliance officers do and the service they provide. With all the time they spend explaining the rules, educating the public and helping people with their trash problems, the job has its rewards. One recent reward came by way of a commendation from a resident who was elated at the quick response she got from Lake regarding some illegal dumping that was taking place on his property. Within 48 hours, Lake had contacted the culprit and got them to remove the debris.
The man’s appreciative email was read into the record at the May 7 meeting of the Volusia County Council. “What a pleasure to deal with such a proactive employee of the county,” the man wrote. “Please extend to her my thanks for resolving this issue.”
This particular day also ends on a positive note during a proactive litter checkpoint at the entrance to the county landfill on Tomoka Farms Road. The teamwork and camaraderie that Lake talks about are on full display, as all four officers take part in an operation that runs like a finely tuned machine. Everyone has their role – one person handles the database searches while the other three decide which vehicles to stop and inspect. As with everything else the compliance officers do, the litter checkpoint inspections are all about safety. They check to make sure loads are properly and safely secured and covered. They to make sure the commercial haulers are carrying the required equipment, including a fire extinguisher, rake, shovel and broom. They also walk around the commercial trucks to make sure they’re not leaking pollutants. On this day, many of the haulers were doing everything correctly. The ones who weren’t got off with a written warning that gets entered into the database. If they’re found in violation again, they probably won’t get off with just a warning.
It’s a brutally hot day, and ever the “mama bear,” Lake comes over the radio: “Everybody remember to hydrate.”
During the checkpoint, trucks big and small along with citizens hauling debris drive into the landfill at a steady stream. It’s but one measure of how busy the compliance officers are. The enormity of the job is also borne out by the team’s statistics. In April, alonethe team responded to 536 complaints, got 113 dump sites cleaned up, conducted 67 secured load inspections and inspected 46 tire dealers. Each year, the team manages a staggering amount of activity. In 2018, they responded to 3,820 complaints, issued 345 written warnings and conducted 328 secured and covered load inspections. In just the first five months of 2019, the numbers are up to 2,128 responses to complaints, 295 written warnings and 276 secured and covered load inspections.
Back at the litter checkpoint, one of Lake’s colleagues, Officer Bailey, signals to the driver of a green, 1998 Dodge pickup truck to pull over for inspection. He’s hauling a large load of household items strapped down, but there’s no cover over the load as required. Bailey explains the reason for the stop and the potential danger of not having his load properly secured. Then he advises the driver that he’s going to be issued a written warning. The next time there’s a violation and debris falls out of the truck, Bailey points out, he could be cited for both littering and not having a properly secured load – a double-whammy that carries a $350 fine. The polite and cooperative driver actually seemed to appreciate the stop.
And he assured Bailey that he will always cover his loads in the future. “Don’t worry, there won’t be another violation,” the driver told Bailey. “I can promise you that.”
And that’s exactly what the officers want to hear. Because as Lake notes, “Compliance is the ultimate goal.”
Please click on the link below to visit the county’s Solid Waste web page and obtain more information about the do’s and don’ts of solid waste and recycling: