DECATUR — You kind of expect firefighters to have a certain fondness for water, long an essential tool of the job when it comes to going to blazes.
But it still is surprising to find a bunch of firefighters submerged 17 feet down in murky pond depths without a flicker of flame in sight, while practicing the fine art of searching for, say, a tossed murder weapon. Or maybe learning how to locate a worse-for-wear dead body that’s showing the effects of being sunk with the fishes for way too long.
Welcome to training for the Decatur Fire Department dive team, a 28-strong group of firefighters who volunteer to plumb new depths in the cause of public service.
Training and constant practice make perfect the ideal fire diver and it certainly helps if you have a state-of-the-art facility to hone your skills. In the old days the guys, and girl, would literally go jump in Lake Decatur. But those primitive practice runs are sunk in the past now thanks to the splashy arrival of the Macon County Fire & Rescue Training Facility.
It’s easy for drivers zipping along U.S. 51 to miss the place. But there it smolders, tucked behind the Macon County Law Enforcement Training Center on its own 5-acre campus.
The $10-million fire training facility opened 18 months ago and is yet another fruit of the endless generosity of philanthropist Howard G. Buffett and his namesake foundation, which also built the law enforcement training center next door.
And, as a fire training playground, Buffett’s latest contribution to public safety has got just about everything a learning firefighter could ever want: a specialized building for practicing grain bin rescues for example, and a parked chemical tanker car for hazardous material drills.
There’s a five-story training building that can be filled with smoke and has “burn rooms” where practicing firefighters can literally feel the heat.
And there is the expansive “dive pond,” covering some 2¼ acres. Beneath its gray waters are submerged an entire school bus among other vehicles as well as nasty snagged obstacles such as tree limbs and brush, all designed to help divers overcome and deal with what they might find waiting for them when the alarm gets raised for real.
Lt. Gary Gundy is in charge of the dive team and is busy briefing his squad on the day’s mission: hunt down an orange clay pigeon (the kind of target launched in skeet shooting) which will serve as a suitable surrogate for maybe locating a deep-sixed gun or other weapon.
Gundy explains that this kind of search is not unusual for the dive team. Not only must team members learn to hunt effectively underwater, but also to read clues and triangulate approximate starting points by knowing how to interpret sometimes vague eye-witness descriptions.
So how long does it take to land yourself a competent fire department dive team member? “It takes about a year of classes,” said Gundy, 36, who started diving when he was 18.
“The gear we use is specialized, we don’t use regular recreational diving gear, and we have to learn how to use search techniques and underwater recovery techniques, things like that.”
He said the dive team has been swimming around since the 1960s and said a lot of law enforcement agencies have their own dive teams. “But the fire department does it here,” he said. “We’re kind of a catch-all for a lot of specialized things.”
This, however, is not your sparkling clear recreational diving enjoyed in the warm waters of Florida or the Caribbean. Gundy calls Central Illinois diving in ponds, lakes and rivers “black water” work because when you go into the frequently frigid waters, the lights go out.
“If we can see our hands in front of us, that’s a good thing,” he said. “You've got to learn to go down and figure out where you are pointed and which way you are going to swim. The biggest problem for beginners is overcoming claustrophobia and disorientation.”
He said divers can be called in for rescue purposes but, more often, it’s about grim recovery if it involves a sunk person. And groping your way in the dark toward a decomposing body requires a certain brand of cast iron stomach and nerve that not all of us possess.
“No, it’s not a fun thing to find,” said Gundy.
Discovering the joys of training at a purpose-built facility has been much more fun, however. “This place is great,” said the lieutenant. “It’s a lot easier to do our training out here.”
The training facility is run by the Public Safety Training Foundation and Tommy Williams is the facility's manager. The 56-year-old is retired from a 32-year career with the Decatur Airport Fire Department but still finds time to also be Chief of the South Wheatland Fire Protection District. He said becoming an effective firefighter is all about training, training and yet more training.
“Better training, better people,” Williams said. He explained the way it all works is Central Illinois fire departments book their time on which part of the training campus they want to use and bring out their own trainers, with everything overseen by the Public Safety Training Foundation. There is no charge.
He said what the Buffett Foundation has created is something special and not normally found in this part of the world. “The new facility we have is unique around here, it’s like something you would see in a big city like Memphis or Chicago,” Williams added.
“We’re so lucky and so proud to have something like this to train in.”
Back at the dive pond the lone female diver, 51-year-old Lt. Tina German, a 12-year veteran of the dive team, is busy explaining how she loves the work, even black water diving, and says mastering the skill of being comfortable swimming underwater is remarkably satisfying and fulfilling.
Then she takes a long look around the training facility, watching as her fellow divers prepare to go in search of the orange skeet target. “It’s fantastic out here, I really like it,” she said. “Mr. Buffett has done a lot of great things here.”
Contact Tony Reid at (217) 421-7977. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyJReid