Divers work to map a better water rescue

Group wants to know what lurks beneath the surface

Posted: Sunday, March 11, 2001

When one of her fellow divers emerged from Twin Lakes, Annette G.E. Smith said he looked more like a monster than a man.

"The milfoil and weeds were wrapped around his mask, tank and everything," Smith said. "He came out looking like the swamp thing."

Smith is a member of Southeast Aquatic Safety, a nonprofit volunteer organization formed last year to help with search, rescue and recovery in Juneau waters.

SEAS, which has 26 members, wants to be ready in case of an emergency by conducting training drills and mapping underwater hazards in ponds, lakes and other local waters that are in areas of high public use but unfamiliar to local divers.

By knowing what's down there ahead of time, SEAS is protecting its divers while increasing the chances of a rescue.

"The faster we can get there, the better the chance of survival, and mapping is a critical aspect," SEAS president John Lachelt said. "We make every effort to get there during the golden hour, the time people can survive (in the water). Identifying risks and hazards ahead of time helps us get there faster."

Smith and Dave Streeter, who co-chair their organization's preplanning and mapping committee, have already created six maps.

SEAS teams have dived, trained or surveyed in the following areas: Auke Bay public float, Temsco Pond near the airport, Dredge Lake off Back Loop Road, Rotary Pond off Riverside Drive, Marshall and Mitchell ponds off Columbia Boulevard, Twin Lakes, Aurora Harbor, the Intermediate Vessel Float and cruise ship dock downtown, and Fish Creek Pond in North Douglas.

Streeter said the main goal of mapping is to identity entanglements - such as cables, nets and old machinery - that can trap divers and others underwater.

"There can be some nasty stuff on the bottom," Streeter said. "There's a lot of trepidation on our part so we want to get familiar with the areas we might need to dive."

SEAS' first training drill, shortly after the team formed last May, took place at Temsco Pond. Although it's not very deep, Smith described her first dive there as unnerving.

"Once I dropped below 15 feet, the water was so black that I could not read my air gauge even with my flashlight right on it," she said.

There are several ways to tackle a mapping project, including using a three-person team composed of a diver, safety diver and tender.

One person dives, another stays on the water surface and a third acts as a tender from a boat, dock or shore.

Tenders are connected to divers by a rope, which is attached to the diver's vest and runs around the wrist so the diver can communicate physically through a series of pulls. If a diver pulls once, it's a confirmation that everything is OK; twice, it means more slack is needed; three times, the diver has found what he or she is looking for; and four times, there's a problem and it's time to send the safety diver down to help.

"You need to keep tension on the rope to communicate clearly," said Barb Pritchett, who tended dives the past two weekends at the Intermediate Vessel Float near Taku Smokeries. "You're actually fishing them as they're working with that sucker around their wrist."

Most of the mapping dives take between 30 minutes and an hour, and usually cover about 1,800 square feet.

Although SEAS is almost a year old, they've only been dispatched twice. There was a report of someone falling off Brotherhood Bridge and another call about a person going through the ice at Twin Lakes. The two calls, both within the past month or so, turned out to be false alarms.

"We haven't had to deal with a fatality," Streeter said. "That's good, that's very good."

The city donated some gear to SEAS, but most of it is provided by the volunteers, from dry suits and scuba gear to underwater flashlights and camcorders.

"Like any nonprofit we're strapped for cash, so we always need more gear and equipment," said Lachelt, adding that people who want to help can call him at the Channel Dive Center at 790-4665.

Mike Sica can be reached at msica@juneau.com.



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