In a story about a drowning death last month in the Wisconsin River in Stevens Point – the third such death this year – one local publication said the victim “was recovered by the Portage County Dive Team.”
The victim was actually recovered by volunteer divers Bob and Erik Butt. The job of rescue and recovery on Portage County waterways technically falls to the Sheriff’s Department, but the formal Portage County Dive Team was disbanded in 2009 for budgetary reasons.
Bob Butt, a professional diver, said it may be time for the Sheriff’s Department to start looking at a way a local dive team could be formed, possibly as a network of volunteers. “It would be nice if they had a system in place rather to call another county,” said Butt.
Funding – around $4,000 and $5,000 – for training and equipping about four Sheriff’s deputies as public safety divers was cut from the Portage County Sheriff’s Department budget in 2009, said Portage County Sheriff John Charewicz. “We weren’t utilizing them enough to justify the expense of keeping them trained and equipped,” he said.
As it stands now, the county relies on dive teams from Marathon and Waupaca counties if it needs assistance in underwater body or evidence recovery. Charewicz said the Marathon team is larger and better equipped than the Portage County team was. “We thought we were duplicating a service,” he said.
Other than the protests of the dive-trained deputies themselves, Charewicz said the move didn’t draw much attention at the time. “The dive team seemed like the one area we could safely disband without causing any safety issue for the people of Portage County,” said Charewicz. “I can’t think of an instance where there’s going to be a drowning and the dive team is going to be fast enough to save anybody.”
“It’s a cold decision to have to make, but when you’re recovering bodies, not saving lives, that does factor into it,” said Charewicz. “There’s a lot of things I’d love to have money to do.”
Butt agrees that the chances of a rescue are low. “Ninety-eight percent of the time it’s going to be a recovery,” said Butt. “The potential for a dive rescue is pretty minimal… In a metro area it is possible.”
Last month’s drowning fell into the rescue category. “The potential was there for a rescue,” said Butt.
Stevens Point Fire Chief Tracey Kujawa said it was 31 minutes from the time emergency services received the call to the time the victim was removed from the water and life-saving activities – ultimately unsuccessful – began. “The positive thing is we actually had a rescue effort, not a recovery,” said Kujawa.
Butt said that depending on the situation, and particularly in situations with younger victims in cool water, people have been resuscitated successfully after up to an hour after they go under.
The speed with which Butt was able to respond to the September incident was largely due to luck, he said. Butt’s son, Erik, a volunteer firefighter for the town of Hull, was listening to his radio on the Friday, Sept. 14, around 5 p.m. when the call was dispatched. He called in to see if a diver was needed. By 5:17 p.m. he and his father were at the river. Bob Butt said they were in the water by 5:22 p.m.
Divers from Marathon County would likely have taken the better part of an hour to respond, Butt said. Mike Wiberg, who directs the Wood County Sheriff’s Rescue Squad, said that, if his divers were available, it would likely take his unit an hour to respond to an incident in the city of Stevens Point.
In nonrescue situations, timing can be important as well. Earlier this year, dive teams from neighboring counties weren’t available to respond to a recovery effort of Eric Duffey, a college student who had been missing for three days. Volunteers were able to search and successfully locate Duffey’s body in the Wisconsin River, bringing some closure to the family that would otherwise have had to wait for neighboring teams to become available.
Public safety divers also do evidence recovery work to find items – such as weapons –that have been discarded in waterways. They also serve an environmental capacity in helping get vehicles out of the water.
Butt, who owns Divepoint Scuba & Adventure Center with his wife, Carrie, said he’d like to see a more formal process in place to mobilize trained volunteer divers in the area. “We’ve been lucky we hadn’t had a drowning in a long time, and then in one year we have three,” he said. “It should be open for discussion… The use of the river is only going to increase.”
The Wood County group may serve as an example of how a volunteer group could work. It is organized under the Wood County Sheriff’s Department, but its members train and work as volunteers, supplying their own equipment. The Sheriff’s Department is responsible for insuring against liability, equipment damage and workers compensation for the volunteers. Wiberg said it is similar to how many volunteer fire departments work. He said he is also looking at ways to expand the dive team across a wider number of jurisdictions. “It seems like every fire department has got one or two guys that dive,” he said. He said coordinating this expertise is a way he hopes to expand the diving expertise within Wood County Rescue. “It’s important to do. It’s just a matter of how you’re going to do it.”
Charewicz said he appreciates the assistance of the volunteers that have come forward to help, calling them “consummate professionals,” though he said he does not have plans to re-examine his department’s approach to diving. “We’re responsible for anything that happens on the water… It’s not the type of thing we’re going to open up to volunteers,” he said.