Warner Robins Fire Dive Team keeps sharp with training

A shooting, a drowning and a weapon.

That was all the Warner Robins Fire Department Dive Team had to go on when members arrived one recent morning at a private boat dock near the Lake Tobesofkee dam in Bibb County for a training exercise.

Rare are the calls for search and rescue, said Troy Hamilton, 41, a 12-year Warner Robins firefighter and one of three original dive team members.

About 90 percent of the time the team is dispatched, it is for search and recovery operations for a body or weapon or sometimes both, Hamilton said.

Most often, the divers are aiding Warner Robins police or Houston County sheriff’s deputies in search of a weapon used in a crime, Hamilton said. Sometimes, divers are searching for stolen vehicles.

During the training exercise, divers first pitched a shelter for equipment. The shelter had flaps that can be lowered when divers need to be discreet, Hamilton said.

For example, when divers recover a body, hand signals are used to communicate among divers and the body is kept below the water, placed in a body bag and brought underwater to shore and into the shelter and/or awaiting vehicle.

“When we do find it (the body), we try to be as secretive as we can,” Hamilton said as he stood on the shore of Lake Tobesofkee. “Somebody’s husband might be pacing right here along the shore.”

The primary diver in the training exercise, Ned Dixon, found the “body” — a life-sized dummy — quickly and with relative ease.

While hand signals are important, the divers use a rope as their primary means of communication. The lead diver takes the rope and communicates by tugs on the rope to another diver on shore, Hamilton explained. The diver on shore likewise communicates with tugs to the diver in the water.

The rope is also used, by tying loops in it, to mark where divers have searched, and with such precision that should a search be called off for whatever reason, divers know exactly where to pick back up once the search resumes.

“The rope is your guide,” Hamilton said. “It’s your communication. It’s your everything.”

A secondary diver watches nearby. This diver will assist the lead diver and rotate turns searching. A diver will search for about 20 minutes before rotating to the next diver to search.

“We dive for three days sometimes,” Hamilton said. “It really depends on conditions, where you are at, how well known the last point is.”

The “last point” is the last place in the body of water the subject of the search was seen, Hamilton said.

Lake Tobesofkee provided underwater visibility of about six feet. Most of the time, however, the diver is in complete darkness — often in murky ponds, or rivers with currents, and with creatures swimming up against the diver, Hamilton said.

A large fish swimming directly in front of a diver’s mask in pitch dark can be a bit disconcerting — not to mention the junk that clogs up a diver’s nose and ears as he combs the mucky river bottom with his fingers, Hamilton noted.

“The river has that extra little bit of spookiness,” Hamilton said.

During the training exercise, diver Scott Willis seemingly effortlessly recovered the “9 millimeter pistol” — an air gun that looked like a real handgun — by painstakingly going along the lake bed from the last point the air gun was believed to have been tossed into the lake.

Willis also brought the gun in to the shore under water, having placed it in a see-through plastic container.

Hamilton said the dive team meticulously documents all that it does, including a diagram of the search, for court purposes.

If the weapon is where a person, who is often a suspect, tells authorities it was thrown, 90 percent of the time, divers will find it, Hamilton said.

Randy Willis, 51, a 25-year firefighter and also one of the original dive team members, believes that if the team cannot find the weapon, it probably was not discarded there in the first place.

“If we ain’t found it, we’re pretty certain it’s not there,” Willis said.

Most of the time, divers are detached from the crime behind whatever weapon or object they are seeking, Hamilton said.

“We don’t get caught up in what the actual crime is,” he said. “If it’s a gun, we just know they need that for evidence.”

Search and recovery for the body of a child is the most difficult assignment, Willis said. He also recalled helping to find the body of a young man he knew.

For Willis, one of the neatest aspects of being on the dive team is that his son, Scott Willis, is now also on the team, having followed in his footsteps into firefighting. Scott Willis is a third generation firefighter. Walker Fowler, his grandfather, served as a Centerville firefighter.

“He’s just kind of carrying on the tradition,” said Randy Willis of his son, while noting that to have generations of firefighters is not uncommon in firefighting circles.

The dive team was started unofficially in 2001 by Hamilton, Randy Willis and Warner Robins fire Lt. David Dixon, 53, a 34-year firefighter. Dixon has been a rescue diver for more than 25 years, and Randy Willis has 15 years of rescue diving experience, said Hamilton, who himself has 10 years rescue dive experience.

In June, the other five divers completed training and joined the team. Other divers on the team include Perkins Nobles, Jeff Anderson and Mike Young. Lee Dixon, a paramedic for Houston Healthcare’s Emergency Medical Service and a deputy coroner, also is considered a member of the team, Hamilton said. Lee Dixon, who is married to diver Ned Dixon, often is on standby with an ambulance.

For the most part, the team uses its own equipment. But the Houston County Sheriff’s Office and Warner Robins Police Department, along with Wal-Mart, enabled the team to obtain three masks and onshore communications equipment that allows divers in the water and on the shore to talk to each other, Hamilton said. Another benefit of the new masks is not only are the eyes covered but also the nose and mouth, Hamilton said.

Hamilton said he anticipates a great future for the dive team — one he hopes will carry on long after he and the other original team members hang up their wetsuits.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.