MILWAUKEE -- The Milwaukee Fire Department must be trained to react to a variety of emergency situations, including water rescues. These are perhaps the most hazardous situations they train for during winter, with ice and snow to deal with. FOX6's Henry Rosoff joined the Milwaukee Fire Department's dive team as they practiced dives on the coldest day of the year and found it's not what's above the river that's the biggest battle!
The first truly freezing day of Milwaukee's winter may seem like a strange time for a potentially deadly drill, even on a good day! For the Milwaukee Fire Department's dive team, this was prime-training time. "We are the only 24/7 out-the-door dive rescue team in the area. We have to be able to dive (in the cold)," Milwaukee Fire Dive Team Captain Ron Firnrohr said.
The guys of Engine 3 load up their gear and head down to the Milwaukee River on this day for dive training. "We want to get there. We want to get in the water and get that search underway," Captain Firnrohr said.
Captain Ron Firnrohr tosses the training mannequin into the river, and diver John Zaworski gears up to go in after it. As the dummy dives to the dreary depths, on this day, the team doesn't use a boat, common for river rescues within 75 feet of the shoreline. Zaworski hits the water with a FOX6 camera on his arm. "It's cold and it's dark. You could be diving with your eyes closed. You don't see anything," Captain Firnrohr said.
Within seconds it becomes clear what troubles the team about this time of training - debris in the river. "There's rebarb, shopping carts, cars, logs, concrete blocks everywhere," Captain Firnrohr said. Zaworski's only tool is touch.
Diver Cameron Borchert tends the life line from the river's edge. He guides Zaworski in a grid pattern with the use of a rope that goes into the water. Even with Borchert's help, getting caught on debris is common. Zaworski must free himself before he freezes. If water gets inside his gear, ice will build up and block his breathing. "You become hypothermic. Your arms and your hands don't work, your legs don't work," Captain Firnrohr said.
Zaworski was in far warmer water on a July night when Johnny Jordan, a homeless man, ended up in the river. FOX6 later learned Jordan had been fighting with Tracy Edwards, the man who escaped Jeffrey Dahmer and helped put away the notorious serial killer almost exactly 20 year ago. Edwards was recently given a short jail sentence for the incident. Still, all the dive team cares about is the fact that Jordan died that night, despite their best efforts. "Time is of the essence when you're underwater You train and you train and you train, but what are you going to do?" Captain Firnrohr said.
This is why training in such treacherous conditions is so important. In mere minutes on the coldest day of the year, Zaworski finds the dummy and makes his way to the surface. "Rocks everywhere - for the river, that's pretty typical," Zaworski said.
Once the dummy is retrieved, it's cleanup time and back to base. The river is so toxic, all of the gear must be sanitized. When the washing is done, the waiting begins. The firefighters have a definite hope for no real calls, because of the cold, but there's a renewed reassurance the dropping temperatures are no match for this dive team. "It puts your mind at ease that if something would go wrong, they're there and ready to go for it," one Milwaukee resident said.
The dive and rescue team gets called in for all types of river and lake rescues around a five-county area. While they never know what they're going to find, the divers say their training prepares them for anything.