County official says dive team not needed

September 24, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

WASHINGTON COUNTY - The Washington County Department of Emergency Services has called upon dive teams from outside the county for help after deep-sixing the county's dive team over the past winter.

The decision to eliminate the dive team was made for financial reasons, emergency services Director John Latimer said.

Dive teams, which are used to find evidence in water and find and recover the bodies of drowning victims, were used only once this year in Washington County, Latimer said. Divers affiliated with the Brass Anchor Scuba Center in Frederick, Md., found the body of a young man who drowned in the Potomac River in July, he said.

Williamsport Ambulance Service Inc., which sponsored Washington County's dive team, approached Latimer this winter to ask that the county help pay for the team's training and equipment.

"There were other jurisdictions willing to assist us," Latimer said. "The decision in no way compromised the safety of our citizens because we have groups within a reasonable responding distance willing to assist us."


When the dive team was eliminated, Latimer said, he put money into emergency-based programs.

Latimer said the county might call on the Maryland State Police dive team and dive teams in Jefferson and Berkeley counties in West Virginia. There is no cost associated with calling on those teams, he said.

Eloise Healy, administrator of Williamsport Ambulance Service Inc., said the company had no comment.

Every call is different

Former Williamsport Ambulance Chief Dave Hays helped form the county's dive team in 1998 after a drowning in a quarry off Hump Road. In that case, crews in boats could see the 16-year-old boy well below the surface, but had no trained divers who could immediately get to him. A trained diver eventually brought the body out of the water, he said.

"It was a helpless feeling," said Hays, who now is Community Rescue Service's assistant chief.

Former dive team members Richard Smallwood and Gilson Spidle said they worry that if the county calls on dive teams from outside the county, those teams will take longer to get to the site of a presumed drowning.

"If it was my family, I'd want someone there that day or as soon as possible," Smallwood said.

Latimer said even the Washington County team took some time to mobilize, and he emphasized that every call is different.

"There is a point in time when if the person is under water, it's a rescue effort," Latimer said.

Washington County Sheriff's Department Maj. Randy Wilkinson said deputies respond to some water rescues and recovery operations, but use dive teams more often for evidence recovery.

"It would be nice to have one centralized (dive team), to have one call rather than shop around," Wilkinson said.

Ed Smith, chief of Independent Fire Co. in Jefferson County, W.Va., said the company's dive team was one of the teams called to Washington County for the July search in the Potomac. Smith called on Brass Anchor to help after his divers were exhausted.

Spidle, 29, who also is a volunteer firefighter, said if Washington County had a dive team, the teams could have worked together.

"We're here to support each other and it's just another satisfaction to help - that way their divers aren't doing all the work," Spidle said.

Smith, however, said it's not essential for every county to have its own dive team.

"The impact of not having a dive team is minimal," Smith said. "Dive teams are generally recovery."

The Independent Fire Co.'s dive team has about 15 members from four of six Jefferson County fire departments.

Training vs. calls

When Smith first heard Washington County was disbanding its team, he thought "maybe it will mean more work for us, which is not a bad thing."

"We have a lot of training, but we don't have a lot of calls," Smith said.

The Jefferson County dive team has gone into the water for four recovery operations so far this year, he said.

Washington County Special Operations Team Chief John Bentley said diving is a dangerous job.

"The water does not forgive you," Bentley said.

For dive teams, "the call load is not very high. If you don't practice it on a continuous basis, it's a very dangerous environment."

Bentley said Tri-State area teams have shared resources in the past, and it has worked out well for the county.

Jefferson County's team was formed about nine years ago after a couple of firefighters nearly drowned while trying to save someone in swift water, Smith said.

The department spends close to $1,200 a year on the dive team for equipment maintenance, and about $10,000 for training, he said.

Spidle spent between $2,000 and $3,000 on his own dive equipment, which now sits in his closet, and paid for training.

Both Spidle and Smallwood, a Community Rescue Service EMT and firefighter, said they joined the dive team because they like the water, and saw diving as another way to offer their help to the community.

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