If Venice’s emergency services always had to respect other pottering boats’ 2.7 knots speed limit – which converts to a paltry 5km/h – on the Canal Grande, it would take the authorities forever to turn up to crime scenes. “Our service needs to be as fast as any other city’s – but we are the only province across Italy’s 103 to operate this way,” says deputy chief constable Luca Miori.
As long as they’re careful not to create too many high waves (and capsize an unfortunate gondola or two) the force’s motorboats can reach speeds of up to about 38 knots on the outer canals.
“Traffic can also be bad but the worst problem is finding mooring space,” says superintendent Giorgio Patara, as the motorboat zooms past the Punta della Dogana, where the grand canal opens up into the wider lagoon. “Sometimes our policemen need to jump off and continue on foot.” Originally from the central Italian (and landlocked) city of Viterbo, Patara moved to Venice two decades ago and has since adapted his policing style to the life aquatic: here boats replace cars; the city’s ancient structure means there are no other ways of getting around. “You have to immerse yourself in this reality,” he says of his training process. All patrol officers must follow a three-month course at the police’s nautical academy in La Spezia before qualifying to drive one of the force’s boats.
More importantly, they also need to learn the city’s tangle of minuscule canals by heart, as well as how high and low tide affects access to each of them. Then there’s the problem of house numbers: on most calli they follow no logical order. “You either know it or you need to revert to what we call the four moves,” says Miori, touching his forehead, heart and shoulders. “Father, son and holy spirit.” Nowadays about 50,000 Venetians live on the island but tourists can push the headcount to 200,000 on certain days. Unsurprisingly, then, day-trippers’ requests make up much of the force’s workload (predominantly after the tourists have been pick-pocketed or lost their luggage is). But for the police preventing terrorist attacks is more of a priority – hence why the diving division’s activities are so important. “In other cities, divers are considered an elite force but here in Venice they guarantee safety at all kinds of public events,” says Patara. “The menace can be where you can’t see it. Divers are our eyes under the water.” When they’re not scouring the murky lagoon for explosives, the squad scan the seabed for anything from lost artworks to weapons and pieces of evidence (and the occasional personal object dropped in the canal).
Surprisingly, canal falls and water-related injuries are rarely a concern for the city’s ambulances, with such incidents numbering only about a dozen each year. On the other hand, nurses and health-workers often struggle the most when they’re on foot. Clearly it’s a tiring profession and the city’s ancient housing stock means that is not going to change. “Venetian houses are tall and narrow and 90 per cent don’t have an elevator,” says chief physician Paolo Caputo , who heads up the operational centre that sorts emergency calls in Venice’s historical centre as well as its islets and mainland territory.
Patients are loaded and carried into the orange-tinted ambulance boats atop sedan chairs originally devised in Habsburg times but now updated in a lighter, easier-to-carry metal version. Yet no matter how hard to reach and unfavourable the conditions, no emergency call goes unanswered. “A mother giving birth on the island of Burano during a storm? Happens all the time,” says Caputo. “It’s difficult but we manage to stay on target.”