Associated Press

New Scuba Gear Helps Waco Fire Department Dive Team Members

In 32 seconds, Waco Fire Department Lt. Mike Herbert went from standing on the bank of Lake Waco in department T-shirt and uniform pants, to ready to wade in, equipped to spend about 20 minutes underwater if needed.

The Waco Tribune-Herald reports the goal was to get the job done much quicker, and less than a minute and a half after starting, Herbert pulled a training manikin from the murky waters of the lake.

"Seconds and minutes do matter in rescue attempts," said Herbert, who has been with the department 26 years. "You can only see about an inch and a half in front of you, so you really have to get in there to feel for what you are searching for fast."

Equipped with the department's new Aqua Lung Rapid Diver Pro scuba system, Herbert and fellow firefighters with the newly established Waco dive team worked a training scenario on a recent afternoon on the shores near Twin Bridges Park. The equipment puts all the elements of a scuba system into a package that can be pulled from a case, strapped on and ready to go quickly enough to give divers a chance to rescue victims in emergency circumstances.

"The Rapid Diver is for quick deployment in an emergency situation, rather than recovery. Like if a car runs off into the lake or river, as long as the current is not too swift to endanger the diver, we will be able to make a rapid rescue attempt," Herbert said. "We carry it in a battalion chief's vehicle that would respond to an incident like that, and it is designed to be put on in less than a minute to a minute and a half."

The Waco Fire Department has one Rapid Diver setup, with one more on order, and dive team members hope to be equipped with one ready to deploy from all 14 fire stations soon.

The department implemented the city's first dive team in September, complete with about eight divers. But most scuba gear is cumbersome and slow to deploy, so traditional dive team work is focused on recovery rather than rescue.

The new equipment will provide direct access to possible victims in need of help, Battalion Chief Patrick Kerwin said.

"The dive team is so important in the city of Waco, because every year we have multiple drownings and if there is a victim, we can give more comfort to the family with recovering the victim in a shorter period of time than waiting for a dive team to come from outside the city limits," said Kerwin, the dive team coordinator. "With the rapid dive system, we can have a larger chance of saving a victim than focusing on recovery."

The city bought the first Rapid Diver system in November at a cost of $1,795.50 to be housed in a battalion chief's vehicle for emergency rescues. A second unit was recently ordered for a total cost of $1,849 and will be kept on a 26-foot Lake Assault boat that debuted in March to be used on lake patrols.

Firefighter Toby Craig, who has been a sport diver since 1978, said the dive team provides a service that has been lacking in Waco for years, and the Rapid Divers are a superior option for emergency situations.

"In the last several years, all the drownings we've had, we've had to wait for hours to get a dive team up here," Craig said. "We've had dive teams come from Austin, Morgan's Point and other places, and that is a long time to wait."

Fire crews in June deployed the Rapid Diver system for the first time when a car was found submerged in the Brazos River, near Brazos Park East. Although no one was found in the car, the first deployment demonstrated the type of situation when the equipment could save a life, said Battalion Chief Don Yeager, who supervised the search.

"We responded on the assumption that the vehicle had gone off into the water, about 20 feet or so from the bank," Yeager said. "We knew exactly where it was at, but we did not know if anyone occupied the vehicle or not."

Kerwin said the ability to rescue someone in a matter of minutes is a driving force for the dive team.

"Firefighters definitely have the saying that seconds or minutes save lives, and that is true with the Rapid Diver," Kerwin said. "When a vehicle is witnessed going into a body of water, the rapid diver can be deployed and firefighters will be able to don the equipment and get in and hopefully save a life."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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