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Dive training began in the waters off Avery Point over the weekend for some of the more than 50 firefighters and police set to become the largest regional dive team in eastern Connecticut.
Waterford police Lt. David Burton said the New London Marine Group Regional Dive Team is becoming a reality as more towns sign on to the venture with an eye toward developing a unit with standardized equipment and training.
The idea is to have an interchangeable pool of people who are familiar with one another and can respond in groups for search and rescues, evidence recovery or even terrorist prevention activities.
The inspiration for the group came from the Coast Guard's report on the 2012 sinking of the 50-foot yacht Priceless in the waters off Fishers Island Sound. A Pomfret woman perished in the wreck.
Divers and boats from Westerly, Old Mystic, Mystic and Groton Town all aided in the response, but the Coast Guard concluded that a more efficient response would have come from one group with interchangeable parts.
Burton, who has taken the administrative lead in the project, said he has already used nearly $100,000 in federal port security grant funds to purchase equipment and pay for training for 25 divers. Equipment includes wet and dry suits, face masks, fins, cutting devices, air bottles, weight belts and search lines.
He has spent the past year identifying existing divers in the area and working out the logistics of bringing in others.
"We've looked at the certifications. Some are better prepared than others. … Some divers can do things others cannot," Burton said.
That will evolve, he said, as more and more divers receive training and start work to reach the level of the more experienced divers.
About half of the team will need significantly more training to reach the level of the Old Mystic Fire Department and the Norwich Underwater Search and Rescue Team, which is composed of about 14 divers from the Taftville and Yantic volunteer fire departments.
Waterford and New London police departments were among the first to officially sign on to the regional initiative. Expected to follow with a signed memorandum of understanding from town leaders are Groton Town Police, Groton City Police and the New London Fire Department. Old Mystic Fire and Norwich teams are expected to be an integral part of the regional effort because of the sheer amount of existing training and equipment among their teams.
The memorandum outlines the responsibilities and duties of the team and mandates things like the number of training dives and dives together as a team on a regular basis.
This weekend's rapid deployment training at Avery Point is one of a series of certifications planned. Later this month some of the more experienced divers will take a course on how to identify and clear improvised explosive devices from places like docks or boats.
Since the federal money coming is specifically to the New London Port Area Marine Group, Burton said training will include anti-terrorism initiatives aimed at protecting coastal assets such as Millstone nuclear power plant and the State Pier. Several police departments have used similar federal funds to purchase fully outfitted boats.
Eventually, Burton said, there will be an emergency notification system and a database of divers to be notified in the event of a major incident.
Taftville Fire Chief Timothy Jencks said his and other teams will still be responding to local incidents on their own but will soon have mutual aid to fall back on in the form of the regional team.
He said teams training together will learn to work together and share equipment and personnel, making manpower-intensive calls such as a search and rescue easier to manage.
Though working separately from Old Mystic, Jencks said there was "already a lot of continuity in the way we're doing things. Everybody involved is going to benefit."