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Cape Coral firefighters and others suit up for training in water rescue

By Staff | Apr 24, 2009

The baby firefighter Ryan Connor pulled from a submerged vehicle in Crystal Lake in northwest Cape Coral Thursday afternoon was not real.
The vehicle the child car seat sat in was a construction of PVC pipes.
But the water rescue training session left Connor and 11 other firefighters stationed throughout the city prepared to save real lives.
The Cape Coral Fire Department’s Dive Rescue Team, with core dive technicians stationed out of Fire Station 2 on Nicholas Parkway, responded to 93 water-related incidents in 2008, according to statistics from the Cape Coral Fire Rescue and Emergency Management Services Marine Committee.
Of those calls, 26 were cars submerged in canals and 24 were drownings or near drownings.
The fire department responded to 79 water-related calls in 2007.
In one scenario during Thursday’s training, Connor was the primary diver searching the mock vehicle, while Jason Polar served as a safety diver and Mike Sandoval played the part of line tender.
While searching underwater, Connor can see about 5 feet in front of him, but kicking up silt at the lake bottom often reduces that visibility greatly, causing him to have to work from touch.
“Once you get close to the bottom and reach to touch anything, it all gets black and you can’t see anything,” he said. “For this scenario we had a car in there. Whatever information you get from dispatch and if there are any witnesses, then you know kind of what you’re looking for. We had random objects down there, too, so I couldn’t just be looking for a large vehicle.”
Connor was armed with a window punch to shatter glass and scissors to cut seat belts or other entanglements, among other tools on his full-body dive suit.
He was able to rescue the mock youngster with the help of his fellow firefighters, but following protocol is as important a factor to his success as quickness, he said.
Reaching in to help save potential victims in the vehicle, Connor was careful not to put his face inside; if he had, a struggling passenger might have accidentally removed his facemask in a real-life scenario.
“Then you become a victim, and someone else has to go in there and rescue you and the person you’re saving,” he said.
The submerged vehicle drill, along with a separate drill with the mock-drowning of a swimmer, come at the tail end of several days of dive training, including classroom lectures and pool scenarios.
Each trainee was required to act as a primary diver, safety diver, line tender and dive group leader.
“Within 6 minutes is when brain damage starts,” said dive field training officer Tim Clark. “The brain can only survive so long without oxygen. Our job is to get on the scene, get the guys in the water, find what we’re looking for as fast as we can, get (victims) out of the water and start providing them with emergency medical care. We work on seconds and that’s what we try to get them to do. Every second counts.”
Currently the fire department has about 55 certified divers, and the training will bring that number up to about 70, said dive field training officer Ryan Corlew.
The department is attempting to replenish the positions of about seven or eight divers it lost to early retirement buyouts, he said.
“The city is so large, with 10 fire stations,” Corlew said. “We have rescue swimmer mask, fins and snorkel and rescue diver equipment with a tank on every front-line apparatus in the city. If something happens right now down at the yacht club, there’ll be a dive tank there in minutes, and that’s the same thing throughout the entire city.”
With more than 400 miles of canals in the Cape, the fire department ensures firefighters are trained extensively for water-rescue scenarios.
“There’s a lot of water here,” Corlew said. “The city of Cape Coral Fire Department might be different from other stations, because we take the water-rescue stuff very, very seriously.”
In fact, potential firefighters are required to be comfortable in the water to even be considered for a position in Cape, he said. Those seeking diver certification undergo various tests, including a half-mile swim with dive gear and a 500-yard freestyle swim.
The department usually holds dive training at least two to three times annually.
“Our administration has provided tools and the training for us to have that, and now we’re just trying to make sure that we provide that to the citizens with the best resources that we can,” Clark said. “We can only accomplish that through this kind of training.”
Divers from Upper Captiva Island participated Thursday, and the fire department helps train divers from various stations including Pine Island and Pembroke Pines.
“It’s something that other departments are seeing a bigger need for,” Corlew said. “And they’re respecting and finding out how much we have to offer and how detailed our program is. So, it’s working out well.”