On a recent Monday morning, the Chicago Fire Department received an emergency call about a person in Lake Michigan near 95th Street. The dispatcher immediately notified Engine Company 13, at 259 N. Columbus Dr., where the Air and Sea Rescue Team is located.
The divers began pulling on thermal protection layers, Viking dry suits, boots, fins and helmets before the truck even rolled out of the station. They secured one another’s air tanks and emergency air tanks as it sped towards the scene. Mastering this procedure is the first of many required to be a CFD Public Safety Diver.
“They do a test when they’re going through the first week of training called rapid deployment dressing,” says Ron Dorneker, Deputy Chief of Marine and Dive Operations. “They have to go from being in their uniforms to being fully suited divers in less than four minutes.”
Every water-related emergency in Chicago — and, when requested, from the far northern suburbs to Indiana — is dispatched to Marine Headquarters at Chicago’s Engine Company 13. Besides housing a supervisor and three divers every day of the year, it also houses a vehicle loaded with two inflatable boats, four integrated scuba outfits and enough specialized equipment to complete rescues in virtually any water-related environment regardless of weather.
The entire Air and Sea Rescue Team consists of 140 to 160 divers, all of whom spent five years as sworn firefighters and demonstrated basic diving and swimming skills before applying. They respond to roughly 250 emergencies every year.
As the truck carried four of them to the incident at 95th, a Bell 412 helicopter powered up at the Chicago Fire Department’s Heliport near Calumet Park along the lakefront. Equipped with a high definition “FLIR” camera that can see over a mile in darkness, the chopper is capable of uploading footage of the situation to the Chicago 9-1-1 center, where call-takers, dispatchers and executives can review and respond accordingly.
“It’s a great helicopter that’s built for search and rescue,” says Dorneker.
It also transported two additional divers to the emergency. Like their counterparts traveling from Engine Company 13, these rescuers stuck with the Air & Sea training program even after enduring the first week, which according to Dorneker, “really weeds people out.”
“It’s a little over a 40-hour week in a swimming pool and out in the lake and the river,” he explains. “From that point, it takes about three years to get to where they’re a true public safety diver trained for water rescue for the city of Chicago.” Upon achieving that honor, the fully-fledged divers can look forward to more training exercises every day.
“It never ends,” says Dorneker. “Last year we logged over three thousand hours.”
During the winter, he and the team use a special chain saw to cut holes in the Lake Michigan ice so that they can explore the waters underneath and “learn our true ability.” Besides navigating currents that Dorneker describes as “unforgiving,” the divers also perfect their means of communication, both hard-wired and wireless.
“The ice presents an overhead environment, which is dangerous to us,” he explains. “If something goes kaput and your breathing system fails, you need to go back to the hole that you went in to get out. We have contingency plans that we use — whether it’s the redundant air supply or the Rapid Intervention Team — to rescue the diver in distress.”
While the truck and the chopper approached the emergency at 95th over land and in the air, the department’s 92-foot fireboat, Engine 2, raced towards it from a dock near Navy Pier. Upon arriving, they joined the fire fighters from Engine Company 74, the Firehouse nearest to the incident, who also had been activated as part of the protocol for water-related emergencies.
“It’s a standardized response from the Fire Department that gets 41 fire fighters and paramedics on the scene of these incidents,” explains Dorneker. “Engines, Trucks, battalion chiefs, special operations chiefs, helicopters, boats… It’s a big group.”
Fortunately, very few of the life-saving resources were necessary on the morning of March 18. Engine Company 74 was able to pull the victim out of the lake before anyone else arrived. Since every member of the Department is trained as a first responder to water incidents, they were equipped with floatation devices, ring buoys, throw bags, and the knowledge to use them.
“People do not join the Fire Department to go on their water rescue team,” Dorneker says. “People join the fire department to become firefighters. But if somebody’s in distress in the water, they can make a quick attempt for a surface rescue before the dive team even gets on the scene.”
Chicago firefighters can train in several categories including auto extraction, hazardous material fires, airport fires and high-rise fire fighting, which is Engine Company 13’s specialty.
Many of the men and women who join Air & Sea Rescue come from obvious places like the Navy, but Dorneker enthusiastically explains that there are also plenty “who showed the willingness to train and learn.”
Dorneker himself seems to have followed the path of a natural born water rescuer. His career in public safety diving began when he was a 15-year-old camp counselor at Owasippe Scout Reservation in Twin Lake, Michigan. “They used to pay extra money to bring my scuba gear to camp with me,” he remembers. He worked as a lifeguard for the Chicago Park District, the Sheriff of Galveston, Texas, and the Chicago Police Force before joining the Chicago Fire Department in 1988.
“I’m very passionate about the water,” he says. “I love the water and I like going out there, too. I’m just smart enough to know to stay far enough away so I don’t get myself caught up in the waves or out on the ice.”
— Dan Patton | Staff Writer