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Delray fire-rescue dive team inspired by member who died

By Nancy L. Othón
Staff Writer

January 13, 2003

DELRAY BEACH, FL· It's been more than a year since the Fire Department lost a man who was a pillar of strength and the dive team lost its leader and founder.

In Peter Firehock, young and veteran firefighters alike had someone who served as a motivator and looked out for them.

But the Delray Beach Fire-Rescue's dive team worked together as never before during the 16th annual Public Safety Divers National Conference late last year.

"It felt like he was there. I never saw the team pull harder or work so cohesively," said Lt. Mike Wise, the dive team's coordinator. "Every team there that knew Pete, they came forward to say Pete would have been proud of us."

Firehock, 48, died in December 2001, when he was hit by a van in Boynton Beach. Octavio Berrera, charged with manslaughter in Firehock's death, has not gone to trial yet.

His death affected many firefighters, particularly those on the dive rescue team.

Wise, Firehock's partner in past competitions, still finds it difficult to talk about his close friend, but his pride in the dive team is obvious as he quickly lists the team's accomplishments. Delray's team introduced an award at the 2002 competition in honor of their fallen colleague -- the Peter L. Firehock Memorial Award -- to be given to the team that demonstrates team sportsmanship, professionalism and commitment to dive safety.

By the end of the five-day competition, the teams had voted to give the award right back to the Delray team.

"It was pretty emotional for me," Wise said, getting choked up. "Pete was my best friend."

The 40-member dive rescue team trains four times a year, and the national conference in Orlando is not only viewed as a competition, but as another tool for training. Delray's four teams picked up 10 first place medals, five second place medals and seven third place medals.

Delray's dive team is regionally recognized for its expertise; other departments routinely call on dive team members to teach classes, Wise said. The team's members are firefighters, paramedics, drivers and department heads, most of whom recreationally dive but are certified as rescue divers.

The difference between recreational diving and rescue diving is literally night and day. Rescue divers have to deal with zero visibility most of the time, diving in murky waters sometimes contaminated with bacteria.

To train, potential rescue divers practice in a controlled environment, usually a pool or lake, by blacking out their masks.

"You're not in a normal environment, you're feeling the muck, running into bicycles or tree branches or whatever's down there and you have to maintain your calm and cool," said Mike McCleary, a driver/engineer. "Some people come into this thinking they can do it and they can't. They just didn't feel comfortable with it."

McCleary and partner Chris Zidar excelled at a competition last fall, winning first place in the Master's Division overall and first place in the Master Recovery Diver competition for the second consecutive year.

The competitions aren't easy. Divers must maneuver their way through underwater obstacle courses in timed events, going against other competitors as well as the clock. They're searching cars and helicopters under water in exercises that not only test recovery techniques, but diving ability in general.

"It's hard. It's not a cakewalk," McCleary said. "It's mentally and physically draining."

One particularly tough part of the event, Zidar said, involves underwater navigation. Two-member teams are given a chart and compass and are expected to find underwater buoys in black water by counting and mapping their way around underwater.

"This is not recreational diving, it's not a pleasant situation -- it's a stressful situation," said Zidar.

On average, the team responds to calls five to 10 times a year. Frequently, divers are searching a car in a canal to make sure no one's in it.

Though the dive team has yet to make a save, the team also hasn't lost a member. The idea that a well-trained diver could die in the water isn't so farfetched. Two Indianapolis firefighters died in training exercises within two years of each other.

A report released this summer by the National Academy of Police Diving criticized the diving instructor in Indianapolis for training divers in a dangerous atmosphere.

Above everything else, Delray Beach divers are trained to follow safety rules, Wise said. Every fire engine is set up with diving equipment. Two divers and a backup diver are sent when the dive team is called. It usually takes less than a minute to get suited up.

Lt. Tony Ojea, who together with Wise received the Firehock award, remembers a call several years ago when he rescued a man who had jumped into the Intracoastal Waterway. The man, who had been drinking on a tourist boat, was found in about four minutes and had a heartbeat.

"I couldn't believe we found him that fast, I was hoping he was still alive," Ojea said.

The man died, but the incident serves as a reminder of how vital members of the dive team are to the Fire Department, Ojea said.

"It gives you a little inspiration," he said. "We were so close."