LACONIA — Fire Chief Ken Erickson said yesterday that his decision to retire the department's Dive Team reflected the changed circumstances of the unit, while emphasizing that the capacity of the department to respond to emergencies on water and ice remained undiminished.
The Dive Team was begun, inspired and led by firefighter Mark Miller, who drowned beneath the ice off Weirs Beach while training on March 11, 2004. Erickson said that he delayed his announcement until after the department marked the tenth anniversary of Miller's passing and speaking with his widow Gayle and Cynthia Makris, whose father Peter was the team's leading patron.
Last year, when Municipal Resources, Inc. undertook an analysis of the operations and staffing of the Fire Department, included among its recommendations was a suggestion that the department reconsider the Dive Team and concentrate its resources on its most essential functions and responsibilities. "I had been thinking about it before the report," Erickson said, "but that focused my attention."
Erickson said that with Miller's leadership and inspiration the team numbered nine fully certified divers, trained in underwater rescue and recovery as well as to dive underneath a frozen surface, and a full complement of tenders to assist them. However, since then the number has dwindled with retirements, injuries and aging . "We're running short of qualified divers," he said. He explained that for one diver to enter the water safely, at least a second diver and tender in support are required.
Moreover, Erickson said that experience cast doubt on the role of the Dive Team. "We had a couple of drownings," he noted, "but by the time we could get a diver in the water, we weren't going to rescue anybody." He recalled that several years ago, when a swimmer drowned off Bond Beach, Firefighter Mike Shastany raced from his home, donned his mask and flippers and recovered the lifeless body. "We still have that capability," Erickson said, adding that in any event the recovery of victims of drowning is the responsibility of the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department.
He said that the Dive Team spent more time seeking to recover evidence for the Police Department than engaged in underwater rescues.
However, Erickson stressed that the department has the personnel and equipment to respond to emergencies on the water and ice. The fleet consists of two inflatables, one of 15 feet at Central Station and another of 21 feet at The Weirs, the Fire/Rescue Boat bearing Miller's name and a 21-foot center console craft on loan from New Hampshire Marine Patrol. With one at the Water Street boat launch, another at the Laconia Water Works and a third at The Weirs, Erickson said that the department is positioned to respond quickly on all the lakes as well as the Winnipesaukee River.
"The Dive Team was a relatively small component of our water rescue capability," he said. "We are still the first responders and we have the training and the boats to do the job."
The equipment and operations of the Dive Team were financed entirely by private donations to the Life Saving Fund, which was established in 2004. Erickson said that the fund will remain in place to support the department's marine operations as well as the Laconia CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and Veterans Count, an affiliate of the Easter Seals program.