by Michael Andrews
Though the scenario is a common one, the Gilmer County Fire and Rescue dive team isn’t called into action just to pull stranded swimmers or boaters to safety.
“We dive for weapons, cars, bodies. Even up to the point of somebody tossing a weapon into the water trying to conceal something,” said dive team supervisor Robert Flesher.
“Our primary goal is life safety, but the biggest thing in our mission (is often) providing closure for families,” he continued. “If we can’t make the save, we want to at least be able to return the body to them.”
Recent indoor training sessions helped prepare divers for the types of emergency calls they respond to mostly during spring and summer –– traditionally the busiest seasons for the rescue and recovery team. A total of eight county firefighter/EMTs took part in the two days of training exercises conducted at the Coosawattee River Resort Recreation Center’s indoor swimming pool Dec. 10 and 17.
“(Since) a lot of these guys are brand-new divers, we do basic stuff in the pool so they get a solid foundation. If they get a good foundation here, when we get into the lake it should be second nature,” said Flesher.
First, class participants were required to complete a 500-yard free swim.
“The 500-yard swim is done (to train for) in case something happens where we have to swim to shore,” said Flesher. “If they can do that, they’re physically where you want them in the water.”
After a brief, five minute rest period, participants were required to tread water for 15 minutes with their hands raised outside the pool.
“If something were to happen to (our) boat, we would have to tread water until help gets there,” said Flesher.
An 800-yard masked, finned snorkel swim came next in which swimmers had to keep their heads submerged underwater the full 16 laps.
A “tired diver tow” followed in which each firefighter/ EMT took turns dragging a fellow responder and being dragged 100 yards to safety.
A weight retrieval exercise that called for a 10-pound weight to be removed by hand from the center of the pool finished out the near two-hour session.
“(They’re) endurance swim(s) to train for going out, getting somebody in the water and bringing them back,” said Flesher.
The year-round dive team training requires members to obtain open water rescue certification and enroll in basic dive instruction classes. They must regularly practice diving in a body of water like a lake or river. Monthly training sessions are held throughout the year, not just during the busiest seasons for divers.
“They have to get up with a qualified instructor and do some class work on the basics of diving, as well as some basic pool work. Then, they go out and do some practice dives. These guys went to the quarry at Whitestone. Then they start accruing and logging their dives. (The training) keeps going on and on,” said Flesher.
Emergency responders who satisfactorily completed all legs of the swim session will progress on to a six-day dive response simulation, much of which will be held in late January at Carters Lake.
“The last few days will be at the lake. We will have limited visibility, colder temperatures, stuff like that. The majority of the exercises will be scenario-based,” said Flesher.
Flesher confirmed that Carters Lake is a sizeable body of water frequently navigated by team members. He added that the team is called upon to work not only large bodies of water, but smaller ones as well.
“There’s a lot of water in this county – rivers, lakes, trout ponds. A lot of people have lakes behind their houses. We have a lot of water to cover,” said Flesher, who added that two of the most common scenarios that require the dive team to respond are boat accidents and to search for missing swimmers or boaters presumed to have drowned.
“The more time you spend in the water, the more confidence you have. The more confidence you have, the better you perform your job,” he added.