Mass. fire department finances dive training with grants

By Matthew Bruun

FITCHBURG, Mass. — Emerging from the waters of the Overlook Reservoir Saturday afternoon, firefighter and dive rescue team member Mark Bowers remarked on his first dive since donning the department's new underwater communications gear.

"It's like the horse and buggy compared to the Ferrari," he said.

Members of the team, joined by counterparts from Worcester, Spencer and West Newbury, were training at the reservoir this weekend with their new equipment. For years, diving searchers have communicated with their tenders on the surface by tugs on their guide ropes. The new equipment, complete with face-covering masks, allows verbal communication for the first time.

Acting Deputy Fire Chief Brian Belliveau, Fitchburg's dive master, said the department tries to log eight training dives a year, and the goal for Fitchburg is to have its members certified in the latest standards from Dive Rescue International.

The training regimen, which wrapped up yesterday, and the new equipment were paid for with a state grant, the acting deputy said. Once certified, the city's team will have the same accreditation as its counterparts in Leominster, Lunenburg and Sterling, he added, noting that the grant was divided among the communities.

While the four communities have their own dive teams, they are often deployed regionally, he said. Having the same certification and equipment, he continued, will allow them better communication at incidents.

"This particular course is the benchmark for public safety diving," said Firefighter Bowers, who has been part of the dive team since 1988 and has been a recreational diver for years longer.

It was 50 years ago that then-Chief Norman Flechtner commissioned the "frogman" team, Acting Deputy Chief Belliveau said.

"It's been active and inactive over the years," he said, but has been in steady operation since the early 1970s.

The equipment has changed much since the early days, with the latest communications gear a huge step forward, Firefighter Bowers said.

"Having the ability to talk to people on the surface is a huge, huge benefit," he said. "It can honestly make our efforts more precise."

The training program over the weekend had divers submerging in the reservoir — which is not in use as a drinking water supply — looking for orange clay pigeons.

Michael Wylie, a corporate trainer with Dive Rescue International, said the new equipment can also let divers communicate with one another along with surface crews.

He said the regional deployment model used by the local departments' dive teams is common nationwide.

"It takes a lot of manpower, a lot of resources," Mr. Wylie said. "It makes sense to combine. They work together."

Copyright 2008 Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Inc.
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