A familiar team is rebuilding after a few years in hiatus to help fight crime and protect public safety around waterways.
The joint dive team made up of members of the Superior police and fire departments and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is back in training with funding through Wisconsin Emergency Management.
“We already had a dive team; we put in moth balls quite a while ago,” Superior Police Sgt. Chris Kirchoff said. “The state realized … we need regional dive teams. The reason we got it started was federal grants, and that money dried up. Now they realized again that it’s a good idea to have dive teams.”
The funding helped pay for new equipment and training, Kirchoff said.
Four members of the original team remain, and eight new members joined the team. With the funding through Wisconsin Emergency Management, new members were able to get their basic public safety dive training in this summer, said Superior Police Capt. Tom Champaigne, co-commander of the team and one of the original members.
Now they continue to expand on that training.
After all, public safety diving is not the same as recreational diving.
“With recreational diving, you’re trained to dive with a partner,” Champaigne said. “In public safety diving, there is one diver in the water at a time.” He said the equipment is different too, to allow divers to communicate with divers not in the water. Public safety divers use full face shields and hard hats when they can rather than a regulator and a mask. The need to be able to communicate, are tethered with a safety line and can get air from a surface supply.
“When I dive on vacation, the gear is different than what I wear at work,” Champaigne said.
This week, the dive team got a chance to train in blackwater search techniques while searching for a cellphone in connection with an actual case. The phone had been thrown in the water off Barker’s Island and divers were successful in recovering it, Champaigne said.
Among the things the original dive team has been able to recover was a safe, stolen jewelry, firearms and even a Porsche that had been stolen in Superior 20 years earlier, Champaign said.
“We’re starting out baby steps,” Kirchoff said. “We’re not quite where we used to be, but we try to train once a month and it’s joint training so we all get together and train together … eventually, we’ll be back up to where we used to be.”
New members still have to be trained for diving in a dry suit, which protects divers from the cold and pollutants that could be in the water, Champaigne said. He anticipates one more outdoor training session before ice starts to form in November, at which time the team will train in pools. He said while the team won’t be ready for ice dive training by then, it's another step the team will build on over time.
Kirchoff said it will take a couple of years before the full team is fully trained.
The joint dive team in Superior is now part of Wisconsin Alert, one of five regional teams Wisconsin Emergency Management can call on to respond in major events.
Champaigne said it doesn’t even have to be an emergency. If the president were coming to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, the Secret Service could call on the team to perform a search of the waterfront, he said.
But if they are called into action, Champaigne said they will be ready.
“We’re capable now because of the four members,” Champaigne said. “You need multiple divers on the topside for support.”