Water rescue squad sees improved training, equipment
BARNESVILLE, Pa. (AP) — With summer fast approaching, the Ryan Township Emergency and Rescue Squad dive team is ready for action.
“People do stupid things, and then we have to risk our lives to go and get them,” Chief Darrell Harris said. “We don’t cause the problems. We’re here to help.”
Since its formation in 1994, the team has been rescuing and recovering swimmers, boaters, drowning victims and others from lakes, rivers, streams and swimming pools — and even a pit of excrement once — in Schuylkill County and beyond.
As the dive team celebrates its 25th anniversary, members look back on a history that begins with a motor boat and now boasts three watercraft, state-of-the art equipment and 11 certified divers trained in open water diving, ice diving, cave diving, river rescue and more.
‘Saw a need’
The township’s emergency and rescue squad was formed in 1980 and began providing ambulance service to the community. Being called to water accidents at nearby Locust Lake and Tuscarora state parks, as well as water-filled strip-mining pits, the rescuers found themselves waiting for dive teams from Berks or Lehigh counties.
“We saw a need and thought why not take the next step,” Harris said.
In his 35th year as chief of the rescue squad, Harris said he has seen almost every situation he can think of, but knows every incident must be treated independently. And though he has experienced firsthand advancements in technology and training, his team is not afraid to call for help from other dive experts should the situation arise.
“It’s all about safety — getting the job done and getting it done safely,” he said.
Three unique boats
The company’s three watercraft are each designed for specific situations.
The 18-foot-long, jet-powered Hewescraft River Runner extra-wide boat is the crown jewel. It is equipped with sonar and detection equipment and has a load of medical supplies for when a swimmer is found quickly and needs resuscitation.
A smaller boat, carried on an ATV-drawn trailer, can be deployed to hard-to-get-to scenes like the illicit swimming holes the coal region affords risk-taking swimmers.
Also, the team recently bought a rapid deployment craft that can be inflated on-scene within minutes. That craft, purchased from a Canadian company for about $5,000, is especially useful when an ice rescue is needed. The RDC is designed to have the rescuer glide on top of the ice to reach the victim and also float safely should the ice give way.
The inflatable craft, which has yet to be used by the Ryan Township crew, could be essential in nearby Locust Lake and Tuscarora state parks where many people fish year round, the chief said.
Far reaching service area
The squad’s area of service reaches well beyond Schuylkill County.
Dive captain Bill Wirtz said the divers have been called to Berks, Carbon and Luzerne counties and as far away as Lackawanna County.
“If we’re needed, we go,” Wirtz said. “We often work with other dive teams.”
Harris said Ryan Township has been called by police agencies to search for evidence related to a crime, and they are called at times for some unique rescues.
One such incident was in Delano where a man fell through plywood into a cesspool and broke his leg. Medics, not too keen on jumping into the excrement, called the dive team to go in and stabilize the victim so he could be brought out.
Safety while saving
Wirtz and Harris said although the team’s purpose is to save lives, the safety of team members is the highest priority. For this reason, Harris said the squad bought an underwater ROV, or remote operated vehicle.
Equipped with a camera and able to send images and depth data to an on-shore unit within seconds, the ROV can, in certain cases, eliminate the need to send divers into dangerous areas.
“The equipment we have, we have for both the safety of our people and for the benefit of the people we’re called to help,” he said. “When I leave, I hope I can say I’ve never killed one of my divers.”
For every emergency call, the team takes a trailer equipped with diving equipment and a full array of medical and communications equipment.
Many divers on the squad are certified emergency medical technicians. Members on scene but not diving constitute a medical dive team. This group is on hand to resuscitate victims but also to evaluate divers before they go into, and when they come out of, the water.
If medical personnel determine, for whatever reason, a diver should not enter the water or re-enter for a second or third time, he or she will not be allowed to do so.
“They have final say if they will dive or not,” Harris said.
Even the best equipment, like wrist-worn dive computers, won’t keep a diver alive who doesn’t know what he is doing.
Every diver with the squad must be certified as a public safety diver. There is no state law requiring that, but it is an internal rule mandated by the organization. The certification comes from training classes provided by The Professional Association of Diving Instructors.
Harris and Wirtz said that when at the scene of a rescue or recovery, dive teams have to work together and come up with a safe and effective strategy to ensure the best outcome. Taking precautions is the key to a safe dive operation, they said.
When a diver enters the water, another diver or secondary diver is on shore ready to dive in should the first diver experience an emergency.
Of similar importance, or maybe more important than the secondary diver, is the dive tender. That’s a member of the squad who oversees the operation, including the location of the diver, the amount of air and the progress of searches of designated areas.
“They (tenders) have the divers’ lives in their hands,” Harris said. “It’s all about safety, and they take it seriously.”
The team is proud of its gear, what it can do with it and what it has done for the public. Nevertheless, Wirtz said the ever-present, but often-dashed, hope is that their squad is not called into service.
Wirtz and Harris said precautions, common sense and refraining from reckless behavior leads to a safe and enjoyable boating and swimming season.
When boating, canoeing or kayaking, Wirtz said personal flotation devices, or life vests, should always be worn or close at hand.
“People have to act responsibly,” Harris said. “We don’t get drowning victims with life jackets.”
Another important safety issue is not combining alcoholic beverages with water activities.
“Mixing alcohol with boating or swimming is just asking for trouble,” Wirtz said.
The squad is ready for action in this season and year round, but it’s just fine if they aren’t called, Wirtz said.
“If people act responsible, think about what they’re doing and be careful, they will not need us.”
Information from: Pottsville Republican and Herald, http://www.republicanherald.com