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May 30, 2014

FIRE AND WATER: Clarksville FD re-establishes dive team after long hiatus

CLARKSVILLE — As 10 Clarksville firefighters work together in teams of five in the waters of the Ohio River, Jon Pennington observes them with pride.

For six weeks, Pennington, an instructor with Health and Safety Sciences, Louisville, has put the men through the paces. He’s made them swim 20 yards at a time without coming up for air. He’s evaluated them as they’ve treaded water for 15 minutes at a time with their hands over their heads. Thursday is their last day in the water, and the men are working on simulated rescue situations.

“You can see their improvement over the weeks,” Pennington said. They’re all solid, professional-level divers. They’re as good as you’re going to find anywhere in the country.”

Clarksville Fire Chief Tom Upton hasn’t always had a top-notch dive team at his disposal. He estimates that the department’s dive team had been defunct for about 15 years.

The department’s aging equipment and lapsed certifications caught up with it, and CFD had to rely on Louisville’s dive team when needed. But when Upton’s department secured a $135,000 port authority grant to cover training and certification, Upton saw an opportunity to help others instead of needing to ask for help.

“What we’re looking to do is maybe partner up with the Indiana State Police and the Department of Natural Resources to assist them whenever they get into situations where they need extra divers,” Upton said. “We’ve got three really nice boats that we can make available to send out with them, also.”

Each of the 10 men take their final exams today, Friday, May 30. When they finish up, each will have earned 10 individual certifications, including use of dry suits, dark water search and recovery, underwater photography and documentation and wreck diving — all of which are skills necessary for working in the Ohio River. Upton admitted that some of the skills will rarely be used, but there’s definitely a place for a dive team in the department, he said.

“We’ve probably saved more people out of the river than we have [from] house fires,” Upton said.

There was room for 12 participants in the class, and Upton got 10 volunteers. He sent feelers to neighboring fire departments and police departments to see if they had any volunteers for the difficult six-week course, but got no takers, he said.

One of the 10 firefighters to sign on for the dive team was Cory Potts.

Potts, a self-described “thrill junkie,” impressed Pennington with his unwillingness to fail.

During a drill in which each participant had to dive into 12 feet of water to retrieve and put on gear at the bottom of a pool, Potts struggled to get it done the first time. As each participant got two chances, Potts swore he wouldn’t be disqualified.

“He said, ‘Before you DQ me, you’re going to have to go down to the bottom and pick up my dead body, because I will not fail again,’” Pennington recalled Potts saying. “Of course, he went down and passed the skill. He was on it.”

“I was not coming up without it,” Potts said. “I had a hard time getting down there. I’m a lot more buoyant than most for whatever reason, and I take a lot of weight to get to the bottom, so I was really struggling getting down there.”

Each of the 10 firefighters struggled at various points. Several of the dive team members were average swimmers at the beginning of the course and needed to improve, Pennington said. But none of the 10 ever failed a skill on the second try.

“They had so much time, sweat and tears into it, a DQ was just not acceptable,” Pennington said.

Upton praised his firefighters for completing the training, and said he expects that the dive team will keep its certifications current going forward. But he hopes that their skills aren’t called upon too often.

“Hopefully we don’t have to use this, because when we have to do this, it’s probably somebody’s worst day,” Upton said. “But we always have to be prepared.”

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Barbara Brewster has been the organ player at Faith Lutheran Church in Jeffersonville for the past 50 years. Brewster began playing organ with the church in August of 1964 at the age of 17.

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