$50K grant provides PSD training and equipment
Cars dunked in watery training exercise
By Lynne Klaft CORRESPONDENT
LEOMINSTER— Roy W. Roberts thought the Leominster and Lunenburg fire departments were on a water rescue call, but then he saw people putting a car into Whalom Lake.
“I stopped by to see what all the excitement was about,” said the Fitchburg resident.
What he saw was a training exercise for 21 divers from the Leominster, Lunenburg, Fitchburg and Sterling fire departments, part of a regional dive rescue team.
They are training this week to be certified in boat-based operations — search, rescue and recovery, and light salvage and recovery — finding, securing and raising heavy items that are underwater.
Two steam-cleaned cars provided by E.T. Coté & Son of Leominster were sunk into the lake and retrieved by divers under the direction of Dive Rescue International of Fort Collins, Colo.
“The owner of Coté removed the engine, transmission, fuel tank and steam-cleaned the cars, making them environmentally clean,” said Mark M. Matley, Leominster Fire Department diver, firefighter and coordinator of the training.
Divers were then sent to attach inflatable bags to the cars, which were 10 to 15 feet under the surface. The bags were filled with air from scuba tanks, and the cars raised and winched back to shore by a Fitchburg Special Operations truck.
The divers also are learning how to search for and rescue missing swimmers and victims of a capsized canoe.
“We actually had an incident right here at the boat ramp about a year and a half ago, when a patron from one of the establishments across the street drove his car into the lake,” said Firefighter Matley.
Dive Rescue International instructors Peter J.P. Gannon of Florida and John Sodenburg of the Pittsburgh River Rescue Patrol took team members through basic scuba skills in the Fitchburg State College pool on Monday. They also received classroom education and then live scenarios on the lake.
“Doing a water rescue or retrieval is very manpower-intensive. It’s nice to have all the departments out; everybody is getting closer to being on the same page, and we now have standardized procedures for all four departments. This will pay off someday,” said Firefighter Jeff M. Vaillette of Leominster, a dive team member.
Lunenburg Firefighter Gregory G. Dik, a dive team member, learned to drive a boat on a rescue and practiced underwater search patterns and ways of communicating and working in low visibility.
“This training has added a lot to all of our skill sets and was a good opportunity for us to all work together as a team, to get to know all of the guys and their skill levels,” said Lunenburg Deputy Fire Chief Patrick A. Sullivan, a dive team leader.
Spectator Norman G. Bernard, a Lunenburg resident, also stopped by when he saw the firetrucks at the boat ramp. He remembered the ice races on the lake during the 1970s.
“They had them every Sunday afternoon in January or February, depending on how thick the ice got. It was a pretty good crowd and fun to watch, if you could stand the cold,” Mr. Bernard said.
The races were canceled, according to Mr. Bernard, after the truck of one of the participants went through the ice.
“The person got out OK, no injuries, but it cost so much to get that truck out, the town said no more races,” he said.
The regional dive team anticipates its next training sessions will include swift water searches and rescues.
“Think about all the rain we had recently. Any of our rivers in the springtime would qualify,” said Firefighter Matley.
The $50,000 federal grant that provided the training was also used to buy underwater communications equipment, an identification card system, and a laptop computer, and provided training for department members in the care of public safety dive teams’ mental and physical well-being during an incident.