PENDER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Pender County is working to expand its water rescue capabilities with new gear and training.
This week, nine employees began public safety rescue diver training and Chief Deputy Scott Sills says eight are already three-quarters of the way through their training.
“The storms over the last few years have made us realize we need to put an increased emphasis on water rescue," Chief Deputy Sill said. "We are increasing our staffing of swift water technicians from twelve to thirty-two by the end of next year.”
Sills oversees the department’s special operations: an honor guard, swift water team, intracoastal waterway response team, dive team and land search team.
They’re also expecting the delivery of new water rescue boating equipment at the end of this year.
One current dive team member, Mike Cleary, also serves as the group’s instructor.
“These gentlemen, they actually perform a service for the community and they’re not going to be in the best conditions. They’re going to be in dark, sometimes contaminated, water and there’s very special skills they have to develop for this,” Cleary said.
According to Sills, Pender County saw 5,000 homes flood during Hurricane Florence and he says the county received nearly 1,800 calls for help. He says the biggest difference in both hurricanes Matthew and Florence was the sheer volume of those calls.
“It wasn’t that calls changed in type or nature...with the amount of rainfall we got, the flooding was more county-wide compared to one area of the county, so that’s where we have increased, so we can put out more boats and cover more areas with the same level of care,” Sills said.
Lieutenant Devon Fuller works on the EMS side of Pender Fire/EMS and is already swift water rescue trained. He says they spent 36 hours straight helping evacuate people from rising floodwater during Florence.
“It was definitely a learning experience and we knew exactly what we needed to train on and what we needed to do to improve our efforts and our abilities to do the job we are required to help everyone that we possibly can,” Fuller said.
Fuller is part of the newest group to start rescue diver training. They’ve completed their classroom portion and taken their written tests and are now in the practical portion where they test their physical ability in the water.
“Thank goodness we have these people that are willing to do this -- like I keep saying over and over, but it’s the truth -- it’s a true service to the public,” said Cleary.
Rescue divers are called upon for all kinds of search, rescue and recovery missions that require at least six levels of specialized training to start.
“I don’t want to get into the bad side, but if you lose a loved one you need someone to bring them back to you,” Cleary said. “All these gentlemen, that’s what they’re seeking is the ability to be able to help someone and give back. So, no one that I know of ever views it as something that’s hard or dangerous.”
It’s training they say they’d prefer to never have to use. But when that call comes in...
“I know we’ll be ready -- but it also means it’ll be a disaster for somebody else and that’s what we don’t want -- but we want to be ready to help in case it does happen,” Fuller said.