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W.Va. fire dive teams test surface supply system

The system included built in communication devices and lighted maskes

By Ashley B. Craig
The Charleston Daily Mail 

CHARLESTON, W. Va. — Local police and fire dive teams had a rare opportunity to try a new take on an old method of diving in the Kanawha River.

It's called surface supply diving. Charleston and St. Albans firefighters along with divers from the Kanawha County Sheriff's Office were trying it for the first time Tuesday afternoon at Haddad Riverfront Park.

The day was sponsored by Divers Training and Supply, Inc., which is operated by Pete Corbett out of Sportmart on MacCorkle Avenue. Corbett, who has been diving for 36 years, has been in business about 15 years.

He said he planned the day with Charleston Assistant Fire Chief Bob Sharp so that divers from the four largest public safety agencies — Charleston police and fire, the Kanawha County Sheriff's Office and State Police — could test the equipment together and forge stronger working relationships.

"It's unfortunate that it occurred, but we recently had a reminder of just how important this is," Corbett said, referring to an incident late last month. An SUV crashed into the Kanawha River, killing the driver, 30-year-old mine inspector John Damron. Charleston police and firefighters still are investigating that incident.

"Our goal is to standardize how our public safety teams do things because one day they may have to work together," Corbett said. "They all need to be on the same page."

Charleston and St. Albans fire departments both had rescue and recovery teams at Haddad Tuesday, and there were four divers from the sheriff's office.

It was the first time many of the divers had ever heard of the surface supply method.

Interspiro representative Jeff Stigall, a former fire chief from Indiana, drove the equipment to Charleston for the divers to use free of charge.

In surface supply diving, the diver has two backup containers on his or her back with about 30 minutes worth of air, but their main source of air is fed by a line connected to larger oxygen containers on the surface.

"This cable is a lifeline," Stigall said of the yellow fiber-covered line. "It delivers an endless supply of air to the diver. It's also their tether line and how they communicate."

Stigall said the increased air supply makes public safety diving a little safer for the divers, who can get tangled in debris while underwater.

"So many divers get into trouble underwater, getting tangled up in barbed wire that's been discarded or fishing line," Stigall said. "Before the divers only had so much air, but with this the divers will always have air."

The divers also can be in continuous conversation with a supervisor above. They speak to each other using a microphone built into the facemask that covers their mouths and noses as well as their eyes.

Otherwise, divers tug on the line to communicate. One tug means the diver is OK while four tugs means there is an emergency, said Charleston Fire Lt. Marshall Henthorn, who has been diving for about five years.

"We usually don't have that luxury with our equipment," he said, referring to the communication.

Some of the divers liked having someone to talk to while moving in the dark water while a few found the conversation made it harder to focus.

The divers could be heard clearly through a headset worn by the supervisor on the surface and could hear each other. Stigall said the line could be modified to run video as well, transmitting images captured from a camera that could be mounted to the diver's mask. Stigall said that feature would come in handy for law enforcement agencies searching for evidence in the water.

While the divers were testing out the gear they also worked with a light attached to the facemask. The light allowed the divers to see in the dark water.

Charleston Firefighter Matt Lanham said visibility in the river Tuesday was about 16 inches. Much better than it was a two weeks ago when the department's water rescue team spent three days searching for the SUV holding Damron's body. He said at one point he had his facemask pressed against the white Jeep Cherokee but still could not tell what color the vehicle was.

The visibility allowed them to see objects in the water. The divers found and pulled a Sears department store shopping cart, a generator, a plate, a broken cup, a collapsible chair and a cellphone from the water.

The surface supply system also allows divers to stay in the water for longer periods of time and allows them to keep searching rather than abandoning their search patterns to surface to either send another diver in or change oxygen tanks.

"We're restricted to the air on our backs," Henthorn said. "When that runs out we have to resurface to change tanks or change divers so this system provides a big advantage because using this we don't have to resurface."

The equipment is lighter than the SCUBA gear the divers wear now. It weighs about 11 pounds as compared to SCUBA gear weighing more than 30 pounds in some cases.

"Anything that helps us move faster," Henthorn said. "Our primary goal is rescue and you've got to be fast. This equipment is lighter and allows us to be a little faster."

No agency in West Virginia uses the surface supply method. It was introduced in the United States about seven years ago, Stigall said. Currently, the Kentucky State Police and fire departments in Lexington, Ky., and Wilmington, N.C., are using the equipment along with several agencies in Tennessee.

Stigall said the setup the divers were working with Tuesday at Haddad would cost about $22,000 and would come with two diver units, a control panel and a surface supply system with the lines and air supply.

Copyright 2012 Charleston Newspapers

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