Dive team gets new boat

By Staff
Rebecca Walker, Franklin County Times
The Franklin County Dive Team are the owners of a new Rescue One Boat and equipment trailer. The two were obtained in the last month through the Emergency Management Agency of Franklin County.
"We really needed it," said Lieutenant Neil Willis who serves as the Dive Team's vice president. "Before this we were pretty much using our own boats. We're still using our own personal equipment, though."
The Dive Team pays for all equipment and training out of pocket. According to Sergeant Brian Shackelford, Dive Team president, the amount of equipment and training totals around $3000 per person, and that is without service fees to have equipment repaired and kept in good condition. Repairs alone can cost up to $1000 a year.
"We're using our personal recreational diving equipment for recovery missions. That equipment isn't made for the situations we encounter in the local lakes," he said. "The silt and other water conditions can really mess up our equipment if we're not careful. The condition of our equipment could also mean the difference between life and death for us, too."
The Franklin County Dive Team was started in the mid 1990's. Shackelford received his certification and joined in 1998.
"We've really started coming into our own recently. Now we have a boat and trailer. Our goal now is to be able to afford equipment to keep the trailer stocked so that when we're called, we can all just meet at the station, hook the trailer to a truck, and go," said Shackelford. "Right now, it takes a good hour or more to get to the lake when we're called because we have to go home and find our equipment and make sure that everything works properly before we can even start the recovery."
The Dive Team is called when a drowning takes place and also for evidence recovery in one of Franklin County's four lakes, ponds, or streams. They also help when local agencies need help, such as in Colbert or Lauderdale County on the Tennessee River.
In the recovery effort, the team utilizes two underwater cameras and their new boat, which was first used was this past weekend. The boat is complete with a diving rack on front deck and a full Global Positioning System.
"The cameras are important. They can help locate the object or person, and can 'see' better than the human eye in black water. It can filter through the silt and darkness," said Willis. "When you get 20 feet or more under the water, though, you sometimes can't see your hand in front of your face, and neither can the camera. You just have to close your eyes and feel your way around the bottom."
"People don't realize that when you get 10, 15, or 20 feet below water, you're surrounded by pitch black. All you can do is feel around to find a person that was probably alive an hour before. The deepest underwater point in the county is around 70-80 feet, but most dive team missions take place in water that is 20 feet deep on average," said Russellville Police Chief Chris Hargett.
The job is extremely risky for divers.
They must be able stay relaxed and focused in every situation.
"Like it's already been said, you can't see in black water. There are all kinds of hazards: trot lines, rocks, tree limbs…you have to stay in constant contact with your partner and hang onto them. There are caves and rocks that you might end up in or under. The river is the worst, because of the current. You have to know how to read a compass and follow it because 90% of the time, you are just staring into blackness," said Willis.
"These guys have to trust who they are diving with. The police department and fire department trust each other a lot because they work together so much. Because of this, you're assured that you'll be with a partner that you know and trust. If something goes wrong when you're in deep water, you know that partner is there to help you out," Russellville Fire Chief Joe Mansell added.
According to Willis and Shackelford, the Dive Team's work would by almost impossible without efforts of Roy Gober, Franklin County's EMA interim director.
"He goes above and beyond to keep the dive team going. He helps us with getting grants and equipment," Willis said. "The city also deserves a mention because Fire Chief Joe Mansell and Chief of Police Chris Hargett help by making sure that team member shifts are covered when they receive a call for a dive."
The team is looking to expand soon.
Currently, it is made up of 8-10 members, all of which are city employees.
Before joining, one must first have an open water diving certification.
The ground support team members do not have to have diving certificates.
During training, there are dive classes offered, as well as rescue and recovery classes. Trainees move to an advanced diving certification, because an open water certificate doesn't allow for a deep enough distance.
The team trains in quarries, and uses a rescue disk sweep training program where all trainees can learn to work together, tied together by ropes.
Co-training takes place with Muscle Shoals to learn to use the Muscle Shoals Dive Team's sonar system.
All of the local teams work together whenever a tragedy occurs.
Swimming accidents are the most common calls that the Dive Team has to answer.
Hargett reminds those who may go to the lakes or river this summer to wear personal flotation devices, not mix alcohol and water recreation, and for parents to always keep an eye on their children near the water.
"Just use common sense. It sounds simple, but common sense would help with a lot of the problems people have when it comes to water recreation," he said.
When asked how the team members are able to perform under such physically and psychologically demanding circumstances, Willis said, "You have to go in with the mindset of the peace you're going to give the family. You can't think of it to where you get yourself involved emotionally. You have to see it as going in to find an object. That's not always easy, especially when the victim is young."
Anyone interested in contributing to the Dive Team's effort monetarily to alleviate the financial burden of diving equipment can contact Sgt. Brian Shackelford at 412-4727.