One after another, about a dozen firefighters with the Directorate of Emergency Services Fire Department took their turn Feb. 6 getting in a suit, strapping on an air tank and full-face mask, and diving into the depths of Big Sandy Lake under the ice on Fort McCoy's South Post.
The divers were covering depths of up to 15 feet or more completing several types of rescue scenarios under the guidance of fellow firefighters and from instructor Jeff Zilliox with the Marineland Dive Center of Onalaska, Wis.
Overall, the firefighters completed four days of training with Zilliox that also included classroom time and practice at the pool at Rumpel Fitness Center.
"We were preparing the divers for ice diving and ice rescue and recoveries," said Zilliox, an experienced diver who has been training recreational and public safety divers for 30 years. "This training gets them used to being under the ice. It's a little bit different environment with the ice overhead."
Divers took turns going in and out of the same hole that was cut in the ice. Each diver was tethered with a connecting line that included a communications connection.
"Since they were going in and out of the same hole in the ice, we tethered them," Zilliox said. "They go in with dry suits and full-face masks, so the comfort level is much higher for them when they are under the water. They are well-equipped, so this is a training effort to get them all well versed to use that equipment."
Divers were under water for 15 to 20 minutes on average completing lost diver and search scenarios. Zilliox said the underwater scenarios help them learn what it's like in case they have to be involved in a real-world emergency.
Such a call came in Jan. 6 to go to Perch Lake in Sparta, Wis., where children fell through the ice - one who went under the ice. During that emergency, Fort McCoy responded with seven firefighters who were on duty.
"Three additional firefighters responded from home to assist the dive team," said Fort McCoy Fire Chief Tim Jorgensen. "Firefighters initially put on their Stern suits and searched with pike poles. While they were searching, they also deployed a remotely operated vehicle into the water and used it to assist in the search. We then put a diver into the water who was able to locate the victim."
"We try to train the same way every time, so no matter what the conditions are, we are used to training with the equipment and can respond to an emergency quickly," said Zilliox, acknowledging that it's a "train like you fight" approach that works well.
He said in below-zero temperatures, for example, a diver who comes out of the water can have their equipment freeze instantly, so that's why they always train to have divers go in and out of a hole in the ice that is covered by a heated tent. "We want to make sure that when the divers come out they stay warm, and we try to get them dried off as quickly as possible," Zilliox said.
Firefighter Matt Wheeler - who's also known as Army Reservist Staff Sgt. Wheeler with the 2nd Battalion, 411th Logistics Support Battalion - was one of the divers going through the training. He said the training is priceless, especially when there's always the possibility you may have to use learned skills to save a life.
"This is a really good training," Wheeler said. "I always like learning a new skill and then getting out and applying like we did here."
"Not many people can do this and it's a service and capability that is required for (our department)," said Firefighter Michael Forlines, also a dive team member. "We train in the cold and in these wintry conditions because we have to be able to gear up, go under the ice, and save a possible victim."
Fort McCoy built the dive team capability just eight years ago. Zilliox said when he started teaching the training to Fort McCoy firefighters around that same time, he first taught the diving basics during the summer months at Lake Wazee in Jackson County, Wis.
"We got them used to diving first, and then moved them into public safety," Zilliox said.
After seeing how well the divers did training at Big Sandy Lake, Zilliox said they all have come a long way since the team first began.
"The training went awesome," Zilliox said. "We did practice in the pool, so they were kind of used to the equipment. For some, this was the first time being under the ice, and they took to it really well. Ice diving is about practice, practice, practice. Even though we do this every year, even when we're not teaching a bunch of new guys, we will still come out and do this because it is that important."
Forlines said the team does some form of diving-related training every month.
"Our training is repetitious and we do it often," Forlines said. "We want what we do to be instinctive because we have to be ready at any time to respond to an emergency, whether that is under the ice or somewhere else."
Jorgensen said the dive team capability is just one of many capabilities the firefighters in his department bring to bear, and he's proud of every member of his team.
Located in the heart of the upper Midwest, Fort McCoy is the only U.S. Army installation in Wisconsin. The installation has provided support and facilities for the field and classroom training of more than 100,000 military personnel from all services each year since 1984.
Learn more about Fort McCoy online at https://home.army.mil/mccoy, on Facebook by searching "ftmccoy," and on Twitter by searching "usagmccoy.