Macon-Bibb County firefighter Garin Flanders admits it’s a “spooky, eerie feeling” to dive into what’s often murky darkness and use his hands to search in the water.
Flanders started diving about 12 years ago while going on cruises and trips to the coast. After joining the fire department, he saw the firefighter dive team as a way to put his skills to use helping people.
“It’s knowing there’s somebody who needs you,” said Flanders, who has been a firefighter for five years and has been on the dive team for four years. “Somebody’s got to do it.”
Flanders and other fire department divers trained in a swift section of the Ocmulgee River at the Water Works Park canoe launch Wednesday.
About a dozen of the team’s 48 divers practiced searching the floor of the river.
The team trains each year during the month of June in the river and at Lake Tobesofkee, said Capt. Randy Moore.
Moore said the firefighters practice rescue and recovery scenarios such as simulating a swimmer stranded on a sandbar or positioning a diver on the bottom of the river so other divers can find him.
The divers also practice a series of silent signals performed by a calculated number of pulls on a rope. When each firefighter performs a water search they’re attached to rope that’s being held by a firefighter either on the bank or in a boat, Moore said.
Since the diver can’t communicate verbally while underwater and hand signals often can’t be seen, the firefighters are trained to pull on the rope in certain sequences to communicate.
For example, when the firefighter out of the water yanks on the rope twice, the diver understands he is being told to change direction. Four yanks means to come to the surface, Moore said.
When the diver pulls on the rope three times, it means the diver has found what he’s searching for. Four yanks or more means the diver needs help, he said.
The divers also practice dodging debris such as large trees and branches while searching.
“Things are continually washing down,” Moore said.
While the divers are eager to perform rescues, many times they’re called on to search for someone who may have died and is lost in the water.
Flanders recalled the night when firefighters were dispatched after 48-year-old James Tyson, of Warner Robins, went missing while scuba diving at Lake Tobesofkee last July.
It was just before dark, and the firefighters really didn’t have time to don their gear and do much of a search since they don’t search at night, he said.
Seeing family and friends gathered nearby, Flanders and another fire department diver tethered themselves together with a rope and started searching for Tyson.
“We wanted to do something other than just stand there,” he said.
As darkness fell about an hour later, the two firefighters found Tyson.
Authorities have said Tyson’s oxygen tank wasn’t on when divers discovered his body near the bottom of the lake in about 15 feet of water.
To help perform rescues as quickly as possible, fire trucks in Macon and Bibb County have been equipped with a snorkel, mask and dive fins for about the past 10 years, Moore said.
The fire department’s dive team was founded in 1982 by a group of 18 firefighters who used their personal dive equipment, said Moore, who was an original team member.
Over the years, the team has grown not only in its number of members, but by acquiring fire department dive equipment and a boat.
To qualify for the team, firefighters must first complete between 40 and 50 hours of open water dive training. They then perform an additional 40 to 50 hours of fire department dive training, Moore said.
One of the hardest parts of qualifying is an exercise that requires firefighters to put their gear on underwater, Flanders said.
Jason Moss, one of the team’s newest members, said he joined the team because he’d always wanted to learn to dive.
“I love being in the water,” Moss said.
While training to be a firefighter in 2008, Moss heard that the department had a dive team. He joined the team in 2009 and still is waiting for his first rescue call, Moss said.
Chief Marvin Riggins said membership on the team is voluntary. Firefighters don’t receive extra compensation to be on the team.
“It’s the satisfaction of knowing you’re helping someone,” he said.
Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report.
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.