Nearly every emergency comes with challenges for rescue workers. Search and rescue deals with unpredictable terrain, police work with unpredictable people and firefighters face unpredictable flames.
When it comes to underwater recovery missions, almost everything is unpredictable. Gila County’s public safety dive team must train for everything from toxins in the water to blinding silt.
Just as smoke ruins the visibility in a home for firefighters, the quick flick of a scuba fin can reduce visibility to zero in Arizona lakes.
And like firefighters, Gila County’s dive team relies on training and teamwork to get in and get out safely.
Recently, a new batch of potential dive team members underwent the first of many tests — this time in the clear, warm water of Taylor Pool.
With the hot afternoon sun beating down overhead, several first-time scuba divers from Tonto Basin Fire listened intently as volunteer instructor Dart Craytor explained how to properly enter the water from a boat when weighed down with gear.
Looking straight ahead, kick off with one foot, he said.
“Has anyone ever hit their head on the side of the boat?” asked one of the students.
Craytor said it could happen, especially if the boat was rocking, but done correctly, divers should be OK.
Tentatively, each stepped up to the concrete lip clad in full black wetsuit, heavy gear and cumbersome fins. After a few more pointers from Craytor, they took their first leap.
Each safely floated to the surface, smiles plastered on their faces, the first of many lessons.
But dive members rarely, if ever, swim in such calm waters.
Headed by Gila County Sheriff’s Office deputies, the team remains one of the few in northeast Arizona. Mostly, they search lake bottoms for vehicles, evidence and bodies from lakes.
Their last two missions involved finding and retrieving drowning victims on the San Carlos Indian Reservation, both adults and both likely involving substance abuse, said Sgt. John France, who heads the dive team and certifies new divers.
Last week’s dip in the pool was just the first of many dives new volunteers make before joining the team during a year-long test to make sure they’ll fit snugly into the team.
France said team members must feel confident they can count on a new diver when working 40 feet under water in near zero visibility.
After learning the basics of scuba Tuesday, France took the team to Roosevelt Lake Wednesday. He laid a tarp in the water to cut down the silt, keeping visibility at three feet, which is good for the lake. Still, France admitted no one would willingly scuba there with nothing pretty to see, just dirt and old fishing line.
For France, who picked up scuba in high school, diving in such conditions is almost the norm.
In the past eight years, he’s only swam in clear water four times. Mostly, he gropes blindly along the bottom looking for sunken boats or bodies.
Still, he loves the work.
“We look at it from the aspect that we are that link providing closure to the family,” he said.
During France’s time on the team, they have had nearly 100 percent success. France credits hours of training and a dozen dedicated team members, who mostly buy their own gear.
France hopes to add several more members, including Nikki Asmundson and Jake Gardner, who passed basic open water diver status last week.
If successful, Asmundson and Gardner could next year accompany the team on retrieval missions.
The team is called out roughly half a dozen times each year, but sometimes that number can swell, France said.
Part of training is learning how the team conducts systemic searches and stays safe.
They rarely do solo dives, instead relying on a two-foot tether line that stretches between the divers, allowing them to communicate and keep track of each other.
One tug on the line tells the other divers to stop; two tugs, go forward; three tugs, something was found and five tugs, surface immediately.
When searching for a drowning victim, divers first speak with witnesses to get a rough idea where the person went under.
Crews then stretch out a 100- or 200-foot rope for a line search. Usually, three divers fan out and swim perpendicular to the rope, feeling along the bottom.
“It is a very methodical process,” France said, but sometimes it can take days to find what they’re looking for.
If they are looking for a vehicle or aircraft or in any contaminated water, crews wear full protective gear.
Even Sheriff Adam Shepherd once did such work. Shortly after the sheriff’s office formed the team 20-plus years ago, Shepherd joined. He is still a huge supporter of the team, France said.
Other supporters include the Border Patrol, which has its own dive team. Sometimes, France calls on the Border Patrol for additional help.
On Tuesday, France and Craytor certified two Border Patrol Borstar dive team members from Tucson dive masters. Another diver worked on becoming an instructor and another working on a dive master certification.
In the end, the training ensures that no matter how unpredictable the conditions — the team members can count on the diver at the other end of the line.