Regional dive team being explored

Taftville firefighter Brandon Rafuse, right, helps East Hartford fire department diver Darrel Hanrahan, left, put duct tape over his mask as Dwayne Jahns looks on during a dive team training exercise at Spaulding Pond in Norwich Saturday.
Taftville firefighter Brandon Rafuse, right, helps East Hartford fire department diver Darrel Hanrahan, left, put duct tape over his mask as Dwayne Jahns looks on during a dive team training exercise at Spaulding Pond in Norwich Saturday. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

Norwich - Several local police and fire departments are discussing the idea of combining resources to create a regional dive team, an asset the U.S. Coast Guard has recommended in the wake of a fatal boat accident last year.

Waterford police Lt. David Burton said the recommendation came in a Coast Guard review of the sinking of the 50-foot yacht Priceless, in which a woman perished when the vessel sank after hitting rocks in Fishers Island Sound last summer.

The search for the missing woman had drawn on multiple area resources - a boat from the Mystic Fire Department and search and rescue divers from the Old Mystic Fire Department, Westerly Fire Department and Groton Town Police Department.

Burton said the Coast Guard's report points out that they had to contact multiple agencies to gather the manpower needed for the search effort.

"They asked in the name of time and efficiency to identify one dive team," Burton said.

It makes sense, Burton said, that members of the New London Port Area Marine Group look into the possibility of assembling divers. Together, the group of municipalities that includes Norwich, Groton and Old Lyme already have diver-outfitted boats and trained together. Burton said he is exploring port security grants that could make the dive team possible.

"We would be looking at a team that is trained the same way so that it doesn't matter where you're from - Norwich, Mystic, Waterford, Groton - we can all respond," he said.

Two of the largest dive teams in southeastern Connecticut are that of the Old Mystic Fire Department, and the Norwich Underwater Search and Rescue Team, composed of firefighters from the Taftville and Yantic Fire Departments in Norwich.

Police department dive teams are scarcer. Groton Town is the lone department on the New London County shoreline with active divers.

Both the Old Mystic and Norwich dive teams were activated in the search for a 6-year-old boy who went missing July 4 at Greens Harbor Beach in New London. Divers from Norwich, relieving Old Mystic divers, eventually found and recovered the boy's body. It was the second call of the day for the Norwich team, which was also called out when a Norwich teen went missing and drowned at Hopeville Pond in Griswold.

Taftville Fire Chief Timothy Jencks, who is also a diver, said his 12-member team has grown by leaps and bounds since its formation several years ago.

Members of the Norwich team shared Spaulding Pond in Mohegan Park last week with a group of 20 divers from across the state. The four-day, grant-funded course certified four more divers for the Norwich team along with a mix of other police and firefighters.

Part of the training included so-called "black water" searches, in which divers wore blacked-out goggles to mimic the conditions of murky bodies of water prevalent in eastern Connecticut.

"Our team is transitioning from a dive-only team to a full-service water rescue team with 16 divers," Jencks said. "We'll pretty much be able to handle anything in the water."

Jencks said he thought a multi-jurisdictional water rescue team was a smart idea considering the manpower-intensive nature of diving and the need for relief divers in recovery situations.

"It's a real advantage when members of a team can be interchangeable," Jencks said.

He said it could also be advantageous to be able to make bulk purchases of equipment.

Old Mystic Fire Department Chief Kenneth Richards said the regional approach is a good idea, especially if it brings in more divers.

"As far as the coast goes, we're one of the only surviving dive teams. The next closest to us is Guilford," Richards said.

Richards said Old Mystic divers are presently on call for the entire region and even into Rhode Island, where they have taken on duties for calls from the Misquamiciut, Westerly and Watch Hill area while the Westerly dive team is revamped.

"I promote training and responding together. We have eight active divers, but you can't get everybody at every call," he said. "If you could activate a regional team up, the whole idea would be to pool resources. I'm all in favor of that. It's going to require a lot of training and communication together for fire and police - two different animals."

g.smith@theday.com

Dave Ribnicky, left, helps Mike Reiss of the Middletown police suit up as divers from various jurisdictions join in a training exercise at Spaulding Pond in Norwich.
Dave Ribnicky, left, helps Mike Reiss of the Middletown police suit up as divers from various jurisdictions join in a training exercise at Spaulding Pond in Norwich. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo
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