MONTICELLO — With the number of calls for service that occurred this past summer, the Monticello Fire Department’s water rescue team was busier than usual.
It also became a epiphany of sorts for Capt. Robert Hickman to get more of his firefighters trained and fully certified for such duty.
Enter firefighter/paramedics Nick Green, Jake Reiff, Chad Walther, Zack Wolf and Nick Ingram, who each went through a special course that trains emergency personnel to perform water rescues in the most hazardous of conditions.
“We’ve done this course throughout the years, but I came to realize I’m retiring on Feb. 25 (2020), after 40 years and four months with the department,” Hickman said. “I’m leaving. I’m the only guy on the dive team that’s ever recovered a body. All these guys are new. They don’t have experience with that kind of stuff. I am the past of our water rescue team. They are the future and we have to bring them up to speed because next March 1, I’m not here anymore. It will all be on these guys.”
Hickman said the course, titled “Emergency Response Training,” teaches rescue personnel to be what’s called a “mud diver” — someone who searches for missing objects or people in low to zero visibility beneath the surface of water.
Some of the things taught during the course include physiological effects of diving on the human body, how to locate and recover victims underwater in various states of decomposition, and how to collect and document evidence that’s found underwater.
Pool sessions included testing one’s ability to swim long distances and how to tread water while holding weights over one’s head. Trainees also used “blacked out” masks to simulate zero visibility while navigating and escaping entanglements.
“There was a situation where they had to take all of their gear off, shove it through a 55-gallon drum, swim through the drum, then put on all their gear back on,” Hickman said.
Then the quintet began training in Lake Shafer for some real-world exercises.
“For some of these guys, it was their first experience in black water,” Hickman said. “When we get into our lakes and get to the bottom, it’s filled with silt. You can’t see anything. Everything you do is by touch and feel.”
Trainees also learned how to work search patterns while communicating with other rescue personnel via rope signals and other equipment, and they even worked in the Tippecanoe River to experience “swift water” situations.
“It was awesome and a great opportunity for us to learn more and be better at something that is low-volume in our calls but high risk in the act of carrying out,” Green said.
Wolf said the training was welcomed and needed, both personally and professionally.
“For me personally, it was a definite confidence-builder, learning where everything is, what to do, think through everything if things do go wrong, proper procedures to do things underwater in little to no visibility,” he said. “That was the big thing, just getting the reps in the water.”
The training also boosted Reiff’s confidence to perform his job when called upon.
“I was able to overcome some mental roadblocks that I had, with the help of the instructors,” he said. “The big thing that I took away from this is to take your time, stay calm and your training will follow you into the real world. Oftentimes, our mind is our own worst enemy when doing something like this. This was really good training and we’re on our way to being more rock-solid than we were.”
Reiff explained that not being able to see underwater was something he had to overcome.
“That’s a really weird feeling when your eyes are open but you just can’t see,” he said. “Some of the best advice I got was just to shut my eyes and tell myself, ‘The reason I can’t see is because I’m in control and I shut my eyes.’ You might as well shut your eyes because you can’t see anyway.”
Walther said repetition is what’s most important in order to ensure things “flow” smoothly during an emergency.
“Being able to stay oriented underwater when you can’t see, knowing how far you’re going and trying to figure out directions so you don’t repeat searches in the same place,” he said. “Not only that, but it’s the repetition on the way to the call. There’s a lot of gear to put on, everything that you have to get ready. There’s a very limited amount of time to do that. Getting things on correctly in a time-efficient manner, getting in the water to start search patterns so everything just flows. It’s difficult to do in an emergency situation, but this class definitely helped us out a lot with that.”
Ingram said doing something as simple as “putting your gear on” was beneficial to him.
“If you can do that without even thinking about it, it clears your mind to start thinking about whatever you need to do when you get to the chaotic situation and be the calm one,” he said.
Reiff added that the training enabled the team to come closer together.
“(It has) made us more aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We will work more unified as a team now,” he said.
Hickman said the divers now only have one more training left to complete: Ice diver certification, which he said they plan to do this winter.
“I really want to hand it to them for stepping up,” he said. “They took a lot of their personal time to do this. They took time away from their families, time away from part-time jobs to get this completed. They all did an outstanding job and are ready to join our dive team as full-fledged members.”