The temperature at Big Bend lake was close to freezing in late January when several of Great Bend’s firefighters decided to go for a dive. It’s all part of their training, according to Capt. Jim Schmeidler, leader of the GBFD Dive Team.
The team consists of eight certified divers who can help with underwater searches or rescues throughout Barton County. That means there are usually a couple of divers on any shift.
"We usually try to do a cold-water dive once a year to get acclimated to the cold water," Schmeidler said. Big Bend is a private sandpit near the city-owed Stone Lake. On Jan. 31, the water temperature was probably 36 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. The divers suited up in dry suits that fill with air and keep the water out, as opposed to the wet suits used in warmer weather.
The divers will typically get to use the dry suits in another non-emergency situation this May, when the city swimming pool is filled with water. During the summer, they’ll do three training exercises – one for each shift – with non-diving firefighters, diver Travis Parmley said.
"The guys that are on duty are an import part of what we do," Parmley said. Ropes are tied to the divers, who receive signals from the ground crew. Three pulls on the rope means go right; four pull means left. "In these sand pits, you can’t see your hand in front of your face, usually" he said.
The fire department has a trailer that contains all of the divers’ gear, a boat, and inflatable tubes that can be used to form an ice bridge. "This area has a lot of sand pits and other standing water," Schmeidler noted, adding there are at least nine or 10 such areas around the county that are used for recreation.
In addition to searches and rescues, the divers sometimes assist law enforcement in looking for evidence that may have been tossed or driven into the water. They will provide mutual aid to agencies throughout the county. Over the years, they’ve pulled weapons and vehicles from Stone Lake and other locations.