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Diving Blind: Underwater training vital for firefighters

By Staff | May 19, 2012

Cape Coral firefighter Robert Viera, top, adjusts his head gear Thursday as engineer Mike Bush, a dive field training officer, waits. Viera participated this past week in rescue diver technician training with 14 other Cape firefighters. TIFFANY REPECKI

A search and rescue effort alone can be difficult in and of itself.

Situate it in a canal where the visibility is zero and add some discarded shopping carts and cast netting, and the task just got a lot harder.

Fifteen members of the Cape Coral Fire Department spent the week participating in a five-day, rescue diver technician training program. The advanced classification uses dry suits and underwater communication.

Using a rope and radio system, they literally feel their way along.

“We dive in these canals and there’s shopping carts, cast nets,” Lt. Tim Clarke, a dive field training officer with the department, said Thursday.

“We are operating in zero visibility most of the time,” he said.

The department currently has 48 rescue diver technicians.

During the training program, firefighters go beyond the more basic techniques used by rescue divers to learn about the equipment, search patterns, protocol, emergency plans and more used by technicians.

Divers usually deal with vehicles in canals, conduct submerged vehicle searches and look for drowning victims, including adults and children.

“We try to prepare ourselves for every emergency that arises,” Clarke said. “We want to make sure every unit every day has a diver and equipment.”

With 400 miles of canals in the city, preparation plays a key role.”If it only happens once, we want to be ready,” he said.

According to available statistics, the CCFD responded to 92 marine-related calls in 2009. Forty-six calls were water rescues or dive recoveries, 21 calls were for a vehicle in a canal, and 14 calls were for a near drowning incident.

Six calls were for a drowning, and five calls dealt with a boat fire.

Firefighter John “Big Country” Barry was one of the 15 to undergo the training. He said he wanted to take part in the advanced program so he is more comfortable in the water when he cannot see in front of himself.

“Everybody’s expected to get in the water,” Barry said. “Anything anybody has an emergency for, we’re expected to go in and find out what’s going on.”

He explained that in a burning house, if there is no oxygen, a firefighter can punch a hole in the wall to open it up. Underwater, it is a different story.

“This is definitely one of the most dangerous things we do,” he said.

Barry added that he may be the only rescue diver technician to arrive on scene for some time, so the training also prepares him to take charge.

“I could be the only one there that knows this system,” he said.

During the training, firefighters first went through classroom instruction, before heading to a pool. Once in the water, Clarke and the other dive field training officers made sure the group absorbed what was taught in class.

“So we have them in a controlled environment,” Clarke said.

At the end of the month, the group will put what they learned into action during an open water dive at a lake, working through mock scenarios.

It has been a couple of years since the CCFD has held this training.

The 15 firefighters will receive extra pay for acquiring the new skill upon completing the program. However, the training was done in their off hours.

A search and rescue effort alone can be difficult in and of itself. Situate it in a canal where the visibility is zero and add some discarded shopping carts and cast netting, and the task just got a lot harder. Fifteen members of the Cape Coral Fire Department spent the week participating in a five-day, rescue diver technician training program. The advanced classification uses dry suits and underwater communication. Using a rope and radio system, they literally feel their way along.