Dive team takes over underwater work

City firefighters regroup tp focus on surface rescues

Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2000

The Juneau Dive Rescue Team is disbanding and a new volunteer team, South East Aquatic Safety Inc., is surfacing.

``The fire department's Dive Rescue Team has been fairly inactive the last several years,'' said Fire Chief Mike Doyle of Capital City Fire and Rescue. ``And in order to safely accomplish dive recovery without doing damage to our own personnel, we need more training with a lot of actual dive time a month.''

Two to three hours of ``bottom time'' monthly are necessary to maintain dive skills at peak, said John Lachelt, who is coordinating SEAS with Doyle.

Lachelt, owner of the Channel Dive Center with his wife Su, is one of only 25 qualified commercial diving instructors in the United States. So far this year, he has made 226 dives.

Recovering a body underwater or rigging a vehicle to get it back to land requires a level of professional training or risks will arise, Lachelt said.

Cities and states often don't have the financial resources to maintain such a team, ``because it isn't a service you're going to use every day. But (a diver's) training has to be on the same par as a police officer's or firefighter's.''

The formation of SEAS will allow firefighters to focus on their main missions: fires, water rescues and medical assistance, Doyle said.

Since local waters come under a variety of jurisdictions, SEAS will work closely with the Juneau Police Department, the Alaska State Troopers and the U.S. Coast Guard. Because Lachelt teaches a law enforcement diver program, he is aware that underwater crime scenes need documentation, so SEAS is recruiting underwater photographers.

Although it is kinder and gentler to worried relatives and friends to refer to dive ``rescues,'' almost 100 percent of calls for diver assistance are, ``in fact, recoveries of bodies,'' Lachelt said.

``It does not take very long for a rescue to become a recovery -- just minutes in our cold waters,'' Lachelt said.

On the other hand, to enhance their rescue capabilities, all SEAS divers are trained in first aid and CPR and can administer oxygen, he said.

SEAS filed articles of incorporation June 8, and has already held a couple of meetings. Officers elected include Lachelt as president, Joe Zuboff as vice president and Scott Lafavour as treasurer.

On a training session June 20 in the TEMSCO pond, tethered divers hid underwater and let SEADOGS search and rescue canines find them.

``We were told the dogs couldn't find us if we used re-breathers,'' a device that allows diver to extend bottom time without give-away bubbles, Lachelt said, ``but they did.''

SEAS divers are mapping all local bodies of water including Twin Lakes and Dredge Lake, plus the depths off the cruise docks. ``For the last 100 years, people have been throwing refuse in there, so there are cables and chains and all sorts of things,'' Lachelt said, shaking his head.

Twenty volunteers have signed up, and 13 of them are on call for emergencies. All feel, as Lachelt does, that they want to ``give back to the community'' -- to provide this service without remuneration.

SEAS is looking for donations, ranging from cash to storage space for gear, a place for regular meetings, and a small van. Kvaerner Environmental has already given the group a bus. Other needs include a surface diver control system that will enable them to maintain contact with divers.

Doyle appeared before the Juneau Assembly on Monday night to work through the process of donating used equipment from Capital City Fire & Rescue to SEAS.

To reassure local residents who may worry that priorities have changed, Doyle said, ``We are still in the water rescue business. We still have the equipment to do surface rescues and river rescues. So anyone who has an emergency in the water and calls 911 will be plugged into Capital City Fire and Rescue, and then we can plug them into SEAS if need be. We are transferring only the underwater portion of things.''

Doyle believes the serious commitment and training of SEAS divers will ``provide a better service for the community'' than the previous configuration.

Donations to SEAS may be mailed to Box 35535, Juneau, AK, 99803.

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