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Firefighters plunge into new environment

By Staff
DIVE TRAINING Meridian firefighter Chris Bohl puts on his scuba gear as he joins in to help train fellow firefighters in diving procedures at the Meridian Community College swimming pool. Photo by Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star.
By Steve Gillespie / staff writer
June 8, 2003
Several members of the Meridian Fire Department are adapting their firefighter expertise to diving.
Tommy Spicer, of Birmingham, Ala., is the person training them. A retired U.S. Navy and U.S. Army special forces diver, he has trained many firefighters in several departments over the past 11 years.
Spicer said firefighters make excellent divers because they are already familiar with using a breathing apparatus and having to perform tasks with zero visibility.
This weekend, 10 Meridian firefighters took to the waters of Meridian Community College's swimming pool under Spicer's instruction. They have already completed five weeks of classroom training and will complete their open water scuba diving classification later this summer, possibly on the Gulf Coast.
Other training for advanced and rescue classifications can be obtained.
Capt. Ricky Leister of the Meridian Fire Department is one of the organizers of the class. He is an experienced diver who has helped instruct the firefighters in diving. Leister, along with senior firefighter Chris Bohl, are working toward the completion of their master diver certification with Spicer.
Testing the waters
The firefighters in diving class came from the Meridian Fire Department's B shift. Although a minimum of 10 firefighters were sought to get the class established, Leister said each of the men intend to continue their training to the advanced and rescue levels.
The involvement in making the classes possible is far-reaching. Leister said firefighters worked together, from Fire Chief Bunky Partridge down, to allow the men to train during their shift.
Firefighters from other shifts covered for one another, and sometimes classes had to be abandoned to answer calls.
The firefighters have paid for their classes, materials and equipment out of their own pockets at an average of about $1,600 each, according to Spicer.
Leister said all indications are that each of the 10 firefighters working on their certification intend to train further in advanced and rescue courses.
Bohl said another 10 firefighters who work on the department's A shift are ready to take diving instruction.
Meridian Community College allowed the class to use its swimming pool at no charge this weekend and some diving gear and other equipment was supplied for training from local divers, Metro Ambulance, the Lauderdale County Emergency Management Agency, and Newton County volunteer fire departments.
Getting started
The eagerness of the firefighters who want to learn how to dive and two deaths that occurred last year on Lauderdale County lakes were the driving forces that led Leister to organize the class. He said flash floods in the area this spring were also a factor.
Last June, Concetta Cron, a 16-year-old girl from Union, died from injuries in a boating accident on Okatibbee Lake. Last July, Bobby Miles, 23, of Atlanta, died in an accident involving a collision between two personal water crafts on Dalewood Lake.
Former Lauderdale County Deputy, Allan Dover, is a member of the Bailey Volunteer Fire Department and captain of the Lauderdale County Emergency Management Agency's eight-member Dive Recovery Team.
Dover has been diving since he was about 14 years old. Now 36, he has been a part of the local dive team since 1997.
The team worked to recover the bodies of Cron and Miles last year. Dover estimated divers spent about 30 hours in the effort, but in both instances the bodies were recovered after surfacing a few days after the accidents.
Zero visibility in the lakes and strong currents in Okatibbee hampered divers' efforts to find the bodies underwater.
He said the wildlife in the lake is another factor to be considered. The lake has a fair share of snapping turtles, large catfish and some alligators.
Leister, who also assisted in last year's recovery efforts for the bodies, said:
Aside from body recoveries diving teams also assist in recovering submerged evidence for law enforcement agencies.
Dover said the advanced training that Meridian's firefighters face will be intense.