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Below the Surface

By Lyle Harp

Cherokee County residents are protected by an excellent fire service. The hard-working men and women of Cherokee County Fire and Emergency Services respond to tens of thousands of fire, physical danger, and emergency medical situations every year. Within this department, there are several groups of people that respond to special situations and emergencies. Whether it is a hazardous material spill, a lost person, or a rescue from a tower, a cliff, or under water, the members of the Cherokee County Fire Special Operations teams are ready to respond. These teams, led by Special Operations Chief Darrell Mitchell, have the tools and skills to safely respond to the most hazardous and dangerous situations. One group within Special Operations is the Cherokee County Public Safety Dive Team.

Training is critical to the success and safety of the Dive Team.

The Dive Team responds to any emergency on the water or underwater. This includes incidents on Lake Allatoona as well as other lakes, ponds, and smaller bodies of water in Cherokee County. The Team is called out to recover evidence, vehicles, and victims of drowning. Some calls can be as simple as hooking a chain to a submerged vehicle, so a local towing service can pull it out of the water. Other calls can involve complex underwater search operations over multiple days.

Search operations may work from shore or dock, or they may work from one of the departments three boats. Many members of the Fire Department are trained to provide support to divers, particularly during boat-based operations. Most search operations are conducted in dark water where there is no visibility. Searching is done by feel, and divers are connected to a tender or guide on the surface via a rope. The tender is in communication with the diver, and the tender is responsible for directing the search operation. In this way, after a search is completed, the Team will have successfully found the object, or they can confidently state that the object is not within the search area.

The Team utilizes several pieces of specialized equipment beyond what is used in recreational Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) diving. Instead of wetsuits, divers wear drysuits to stay warm and dry and to protect themselves from contaminants in the water. Full face masks with built-in communication equipment enable divers to stay in contact with fellow divers as well as with Team members on shore. And finally, because water can immediately turn deadly in an emergency, divers carry two tanks of air one to use and another completely redundant system for emergencies only. Other pieces of recreational SCUBA equipment such as underwater flashlights and compasses are rarely useful for the Team due to the dark and murky conditions of Cherokees lakes and ponds.

Training is critical to the success and safety of the Dive Team. All active divers must obtain a Public Safety Diver certification from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), Emergency Response Diving International (ERDI), or another nationally recognized SCUBA training organization. In Cherokee County, this specialized training is delivered in-house by a PADI-certified instructor. The Team trains once every two weeks year-round. Only through regular training can Team members develop new skills, maintain an appropriate comfort level with the equipment and the dive environment, and ensure consistent competency when handling any routine situation or emergency that may arise. Failure to train is the leading cause of dive accidents across the industry, and for that reason, regular training is mandatory for Team members.

Membership on the Dive Team is entirely voluntary. The Team consists of career firefighters as well as non-firefighting members of the community. Anyone living in the area who holds an Advanced Open Water SCUBA certification and can pass a background check and medical exam is eligible to apply for membership on the Team. All required equipment and advanced training is provided by the department. For more information about the Team or becoming a member, contact Special Operations Chief Mitchell at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The men and women of Cherokee County Fire and Emergency Services are dedicated to serving and protecting the citizens of Cherokee County. The Special Operations Dive Team is one of many examples of this commitment across the department.

Lyle Harp is the CCFES Dive Team Coordinator and a PADI PSD Instructor.