Warsaw Firefighters Improve Diving Skills Through Training

With more than 100 lakes in Kosciusko County, it’s not uncommon for a vehicle to end up in one of them during an accident.

Wednesday, during a light salvage and recovery class taught by Dive Rescue International lead instructor Jeff Morgan, Warsaw-Wayne Fire Territory firefighters, as well as police officers and firefighters from as far away as Lansing, Mich., learned the safest and best way to remove a submerged vehicle from a body of water.

Cars for the three days of the class were submerged into Center Lake near the boat ramp and donated from Glen’s Wrecker Service and Gill’s Auto Parts, according to WWFT Lt. Drew Shilling. All the motors and chemicals inside the vehicles were removed before they were submerged. Reichert & Knepp Inc. provided a 65-ton Rotator to lift the car out of Center Lake.

The three-day light salvage and recovery class was the second of a series of three classes taught this week by Dive Rescue International instructors, Shilling said. The first class was a two-day sonar technician class taught by lead instructor Dan Goldan of Colorado. The third class, which begins today, will be on diving in contaminated (hazardous materials) waters and is three days, taught by Sam Castanza, of Montgomery, Ala.

Thirteen WWFT firefighters are taking at least one of the classes, with all the WWFT divers going through the light salvage and recovery class, Shilling said.

In an interview at the training site, Morgan, the team commander in Brian Head, Utah, for the Brian Head Public Safety Dive Team, said he has 35 years of experience in public safety diving. A corporate instructor for Dive Rescue International for about 25 years, he travels internationally – but predominantly in the United States – teaching military, law enforcement and fire services about techniques and safely operating in a really hazardous environment.

Explaining what the divers were doing Wednesday, Morgan said, “What they’re doing is, they are conducting underwater lift operations using specialized equipment like lift bags, and they’re doing what’s called a remote lift. The remote lift is where they’ll go down – whatever the object is, it could be an airplane, a car, it could be a school bus – and they’re attaching these lift bags to the object they’re going to lift and then, once it’s properly rigged for the lift, then they’ll remotely fill those bags from the surface and it’s one of the safest ways to conduct an operation like this.”

He estimated it would take about six of the bags to lift a school bus, but they would certainly be capable of doing that.

More and more public safety, fire department and law enforcement teams  are being trained in this, Morgan said.

“It can be a very dangerous operation, and this would be in conjunction with a criminal investigation or if they had to move the vehicle closer to shore,” he said. “We put the vehicle in yesterday, and it’s a full-sized vehicle with the windows rolled up. It floated for just about three minutes before it sunk. So, just because it entered the water, it stayed on the surface, it could be well off-shore by the time it actually reaches the bottom. That would present a situation where they would have to move it in closer so a tow truck or a heavy-lift wrecker could bring that vehicle out of the water.”

Wednesday morning’s training scenario concentrated just on rigging and lifting. Wednesday afternoon, Morgan said they would be doing a scenario where it combines everything they’ve had for the last few days, including sonar, search operations, search and rescue operations and criminal investigations.

Lift bags, used to lift a vehicle from the bottom of a body of water, have been around for a long time. While some dive teams have them, Morgan said they haven’t always received the proper training.

“If this isn’t done right, it could be extremely hazardous for the divers. If they get entangled, or if they’re near the load when it leaves the bottom, they can get stuck on the load, and if they make a rapid ascent, that can cause injuries to the divers like an overexpansion injury if they didn’t do it properly and they didn’t exhale on the way up, they can be seriously injured,” he said.

Morgan has trained others on all types of bodies of water, from rivers to high-altitude lakes.

“It’s a situation where, if an airplane were to unfortunately crash into the water, Warsaw team would have the ability to go out and work with different federal investigators – the NTSB, FAA – and they would be able to successfully assist them in recovering the airplane,” he said.

He praised the Warsaw Fire Department, saying they have “taken the lead and I think, as a regional team, with the Warsaw Police Department and Fire Department, the Fire Department has increased their skill level and they’re a very, very qualified team to not only conduct rescue operations underwater, but different aspects of recovering vehicles.”

In the winter time, should a snowmobile venture out onto the ice, he said a lot of these rescue operations would come into play. In the winter, the lift bags could still be used, but any ice on the lake would still have to be broken up well enough to conduct a lift operation because a clear overhead environment is required.

“Hats off to the Warsaw Fire Department because they’ve done an excellent job,” Morgan said.

Shilling said this year was the fourth time they’ve had Dive Rescue International classes offered in Warsaw, but this is the second year in a row. The first time was about eight years ago.

Morgan said, “You probably didn’t know, but Drew is a certified public safety instructor trainer for his particular agency. He’s a very qualified individual to assist in the training and assistant team leader.”

Next year, if it gets approved, Shilling said he was hoping to do three more classes – boat-based operation, rapid intervention techniques and deep diving (anything beyond 60 feet). The deepest lake in Kosciusko County is Tippecanoe Lake at over 120 feet deep.

“With the equipment, with the sonar equipment they have, with the boats, with the skill levels of the individual divers, they certainly would have no problem in conducting operations that are deeper than the average public safety or recreational dive would take place,” Morgan said. “To do it in the safest manner possible, it takes training to do that.”

He said there’s a lot more to it than just putting lift bags on a car.

“There’s the supervision, there’s the communication, the whole thing has to come together to make it a safe operation. So, just the diving sometimes can be the easy part. It’s coordinating it and making it happen in the safest manner possible for the divers,” Morgan said.

On a lift operation like they were training for Wednesday, he said the “bare bones minimum” number of divers they could do it with was six, to do it safely. That includes the primary divers, a safety diver, the tinders who help control the divers underwater, communications and the dive supervisor.

“It’s more complicated than it would look. It takes a lot of training to put that together,” Morgan said.

Shilling said the most divers they have on hand at any particular time is five. However, they do callbacks so off-duty divers would be called in, and divers from city police and DNR would be called in. He said they all have to work well together.

He thanked Glen’s and Gill’s for donating the cars to the class, Warsaw Community High School for the use of the pool for training and the Warsaw Parks and Recreation Department for the use of the Fireman’s Building.