News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 16, 2013

Cold Play

Conservation officers practice diving while training to work with other departments

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — It was bitterly cold, and wet, for divers in the 38-degree water at the Maple Avenue Nature Park on Tuesday.

For the Indiana conservation officers who braved the cold to check their equipment, the dive was just another one of their monthly trainings.

For the firefighters from the Otter Creek and Sugar Creek fire departments, the training was a learning experience on how they can help in water rescue and recovery situations.

“It was good training to show interagency cooperation among different departments,” said Hidekatsu Kajitani, captain of special operations for the Sugar Creek Fire Department in West Terre Haute. “Training like this will familiarize us with each others’ equipment, procedures and most importantly, their faces. We don’t have to greet fellow responders for the first time during a stressful incident, because we’ve trained together and know each other.”

The Otter Creek firefighters brought their command center vehicle — a rehabilitated former bookmobile — as a warm place where divers could change into and out of their wetsuits, and to break out some of their own equipment for training. They are also able to store food and drinks to provide meals to emergency personnel at the scene of a crisis.

“There’s a lot more to what we do than grabbing a fire hose or cutting someone out of a car,” said senior firefighter Jeff McGowan.

Otter Creek firefighters have their own seasonal kits -- including personal floatation devices and helmets for water rescuers, small ice picks to pull oneself along the ice, and spiked booties to put over shoes to walk on icy surfaces.

McGowan explained how an empty fire hose can be filled with air and floated on the ice or water as a safety line to extend into the water during a rescue.

He and volunteer firefighters D.J. Dowell, Ryan Coffman and Josh Craft with support person Charlie Peters were also able to check weather patterns via the Internet on computers in the mobile command center. In the future, they hope to install video cameras on the vehicle to view and record response scenes. And they intend to set up a dispatch station in the command center.

While the firefighters were getting a crash course in ice rescue training, the conservation officers used the exercise to check their equipment.

“The cold conditions exacerbate any equipment problems you may normally experience,” Winchell said.

The conservation officers practiced search patterns in the water. The maximum depth of the pond was 20 feet, and they located several artifacts from the nursing home that used to be on the site.

The park, a cooperative effort between the City of Terre Haute and the state to repurpose and revitalize an environmentally challenged site, opened last year with a walking trail and shelter houses. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources has stocked the pond for fishing and jointly manages it with the city parks department.

“We like to train where we may get called in the future for water-related emergencies and drowning,” Winchell said. “It is very helpful to scout out dive sites and learn any hazards we may face during an operational dive situation.”

The conservation officers brought john boats and an airboat to the training session, along with their dive suits.

“We have gained excellent equipment in the last 10 years, which has made our task of diving in black water much safer,” Winchell said. “A public safety diver needs equipment over and above what a normal sport diver may wear — such as a full face mask, redundant air source, two cutting tools, dry suit, heavy gloves and communication gear. We now have hard-line communications, which has increased the safety of our dive operations by great lengths from the way we dove up until recently.”

In fact, the conservation officers’ dive team plans to add 17 divers to its ranks next summer.

Winchell will be teaching the dive school in the Terre Haute area. The Vigo County Emergency Management Agency building at Hulman Field will be used for the classroom portion, and he hopes that Rose Hulman Institute of Technology will come on board by allowing the dive school to use the pool facilities for some in-water training activities during the six-week long intensive training.

As for Tuesday’s training event, Winchell praised the firefighters for their support.

“We like to train with the local agencies such as Otter Creek Fire, Sugar Creek Fire and other local fire agencies,” he said. “These are the people we work with when we respond to water-related scenes.”

Kajitani agreed. “As much as we would like to train with our fancy equipment in 37-degree water, best thing is when we don't have to use these specialized skills and equipment to rescue victims from cold and/or freezing water,” he said. “Most water emergencies can be prevented, so we ask the public to use common sense and take necessary precautions in or around the water.”

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.