Search and rescue team trains at IRSC Public Safety Complex

Thursday, March 18, 2010

FORT PIERCE — Deputy Rusty Wright swam to the broken body of a submerged small plane on Thursday and watched his partner disappear inside it searching for the "black box” for information that might help them determine why the plane went down.

Hovering outside the plane, Wright spoke but there was no answer. Suddenly, he realized the underwater wireless communication gear inside his helmet wasn’t working.

In a flash, he realized a yellow rope connecting him to his partner could be severed by sharp metal swinging back and forth. He tugged the rope twice to tell his partner to reverse direction and return.

The two men were part of the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office’s first Search and Rescue Team training exercise at a 40-foot-deep lake that is part of the Indian River State College Public Safety Training Complex.

The plane sunk there is a Gulfstream jet once owned by famed boxing promoter Don King.

"This is the first live training we’ve had at our lake,” said Steve Huntsberger, dean of Public Safety Education.

Since the complex opened 15 months ago, about 10 state and national training sessions for various groups have taken place at the complex and six more are scheduled, he said. A firefighters’ association trained on burning buildings and a burning tank truck a few months ago.

On Thursday, sheriff’s deputies had to locate a victim beneath the water, search for a black box (which is really orange with white stripes) and then search around the plane for anything that might help investigators.

They brought the victim up first, and then went back down for the box. The four divers wore dry suits in the 55-degree lake water which provided some protection but didn’t exactly keep them toasty warm.

"We trained in St. Petersburg recently and it was colder than this,” Wright said. "So we were doing OK today.”

The tug system of communication also lets the team members who stand on shore "talk” to divers under the water. A single tug, for instance, asks the diver if all is well. A single tug back means everything is fine. Four tugs from the shore person to the diver tells the diver to stay right where he is because another diver is being sent down to him.

Had the rope connecting the partners been cut by the sharp metal, Wright would have sent four tugs to the man on shore to ask for someone to come help him.

"This is a good training place,” said Lt. Doug Hardie, who heads the team of deputies. "We’ll probably be training here once a month. Some of the things we can do here is to rescue our own personnel, search for evidence that may have been thrown into water, and train with teams from other counties to make sure we can work smoothly together.”
Courtesy of TCPalm - Susan Burgess