PUNXSUTAWNEY — As the warmer weather returns, more and more people will be spending time outdoors at lakes and streams where water-related accidents might occur, which is why the Punxsutawney Fire Department has a water rescue team.
The team was formed in 1974, and in the 90s, the boat crew and dive team were combined into the water rescue team, said Matt Powell, dive master for the Punxsutawney Fire Department.
"We require that a candidate for the team take one of the nationally accredited dive certification courses such as the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) to become a diver," Powell said, adding that once the diver becomes certified he or she will be able to participate in drills with the team.
"Diving around here isn't like the diving that you see in the movies and on television," Powell said.
"It's not beautiful fish swimming by, and you can see for hundreds of yards under water. On a good day here in western Pennsylvania, you can possibly see 10 to 15 feet in front of you."
Powell said the water rescue team has been involved in several major water rescue and recovery efforts, such as a drowning last year at Hemlock Lake; a drowning in Red Bank Creek in Brookville a few of years ago; a rescue and recovery at Mahoning Dam last year; and another water-related incident that occurred at Treasure Lake several years ago.
"The Hemlock Lake drowning was one of the closest calls where time was of the essence that I've ever experienced, where a few minutes probably made the difference,” Powell said. "Obviously, we would have liked for it to have turned out differently than it did."
Like the fire department, the water rescue team wants all calls to be rescues, not recoveries, according to Powell.
He said the team is always in rescue mode at first, and then makes a determination at some point when it is no longer medically feasible to call a response effort a rescue.
Unlike swimming pools, the bottom of lakes are lined with silt. When swimming across a lake, Powell said a team members are only able to see their hands in front of their faces for sight distance because off all the silt churning around the disturbed water.
"Even a lake the size of Hemlock is actually huge when you compare it to the size of a person," Powell said. "It's not like a swimming pool where you can go up on the diving board and look down and see the bottom and say, ‘Look, there's something over there.’ Anytime I've ever been in that lake, I could see maybe five feet in front of me."
To help prepare to respond to calls, Powell said the water rescue team does practice dives at Cloe Lake in and around fishing season.
Recently, more people have been participating in such rescue dives, since Powell said the team has been fortunate enough to have some new members join.
Elk Run Volunteer Fire Company had seven to eight members take the course and a few firefighters from Lindsey Fire Company did as well, he said.
Powell said the water rescue team really is a team effort, as Elk Run has a trailer to store its diving equipment, which can be hooked up in a moment’s notice. Across town, the rescue boat belongs to Central Fire Department, and some of the dry suits belong to Lindsey.
"Just like any other rescue call involving the fire service, it depends on who’s around when the call comes in as to who will be able to respond," Powell said, adding that even if there are 14 divers listed, only four may be able to respond during an emergency.
He said the boat crew has more members from Central because it is housed there. Powell is hoping to see more boat crew members join the team.
"The boat crew may be the only people involved in a swift-water rescue where you don't need divers,” he said.
However, Powell stressed that “just because the divers may not be needed, the boat crew is essential.”
"When it is a dive in still water, like (at) Hemlock Lake, the boat crew is important because they put (the boat) in the water; they transport the divers so they don't use up all their air and energy swimming to a particular area," Powell said, adding that it still helps to conserve the divers’ energy by the surface support personnel carrying the fins, face pieces and weight belts.
According to Powell, all members of the water rescue team are integral when it comes time to respond to an emergency.
“It's a team effort, for everything to come together when the divers and the boat hit the water,” he said.