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Dive team helps clear debris from Big Spring

MANISTIQUE — A local dive rescue team and state police teamed recently helped clean up a state park. The Delta County Sheriff Dive Rescue Team recently conducted a cleaning of Kitch-iti-kipi (a natural spring) at Palms Book State Park in Manistique. It was a joint effort between Delta County divers and Michigan State Police divers. Team Director of the Dive Team, John Smith, who has been with the marine division since 1998 spoke about the clean-up, saying that each spring a permit is requested to dive at Palms Book State Park/Kitch-iti-kipi in order to remove refuse that traveled into the water at the natural spring.

“Much of the refuse works its way into the active parts of the spring where it gets hidden from view, so divers must go by feel. Other litter is visible and easy to identify and remove,” Smith said.

He added that the amount of refuse removed varies from year to year. Not only does this help keep the waters clean, Smith says it is an opportunity of a lifetime for divers on the team because access is strictly limited.

“It is truly an honor and privilege to dive in such a pristine location,” Smith said.

He noted that when he and other divers emerge — sand will have worked its way into every crevice and seam in their equipment.

“It’s kind of a running joke amongst divers musing at where and how long we will be washing sand out of the equipment.”

People tend to ask Smith about the fish when they’re diving and he says they maintain their distance but do not seem disturbed by the divers presence. The spring is stocked with trout.

Smith shared future plans for the team, saying they will be working with the Escanaba Township Fire Department to clear and repair a damaged hydrant that is used to “fill suck water up to fill their pumper trucks.”This summer, the team will work with a local person to practice light salvage and recovery skills.

“Light salvage and recovery involves things like lifting sunken vessels, automobiles and other heavy objects in order to remove them from the water, Smith explained. The department will also be involved in the National Night Out later this summer.

Previously, the dive team worked with the cities of Gladstone and Escanaba to inspect water intakes, moorings and retrieve items dropped into the harbors.

The team has even lent a helping hand to another county in the past.

“We were tasked with helping Dickinson County rebuild their team, which had dissolved years earlier due to lack of divers. They currently have seven members who have merged with our team for a total of 24 available divers,” Smith said.

The Dickinson County team is responsible for its own funding, but Smith said his department will provide dive services to any county in the U.P. that requests assistance.

Smith gave insight to the history of the dive team, its members and how to become a diver with the sheriffs office.

It was originally formed in the 1970s with the main purpose being body recovery in Delta County. Michigan state law mandates that county sheriffs are responsible for the recovery of drowned persons.

“Since that time, and as a result of improved equipment and technology, the dive team has evolved into a very specialized, essential service within our community. Through mutual aid agreements, we have become the primary dive team for multiple counties within the Central Upper Peninsula,” Smith said.

The team is currently made up of 17 individuals and members are tasked with a number of duties including body recovery, evidence collection, vehicle salvage, artifact retrieval, underwater inspections and more.

“The dive team has been instrumental in the recovery of numerous drowning victims within these communities as well as processing underwater crime scenes,” Smith said.

These divers are highly skilled, trained and mostly volunteers.

“They volunteer their time and some equipment,” Smith said.

“The only divers that are paid are deputies employed at their respective sheriff’s office.”

As a result of the membership being mostly volunteers, turnout for incidents and training is dependent on the persons schedule.

Properly training and equipping the divers costs roughly $10,000 per person.

“Up until relatively recently, the dive team was self-funded via grants and donations. It currently is funded through the county, however, big projects (or) requests require outside funding and contributions,” Smith said.

The process to join the team is rigorous, requiring typical administrative processes such as an application, background check and interview. Once approved, the applicant begins a year-long probationary period in which they must complete training attendance requirements.

Once the probation period concludes and the requirements are met, the team will vote to accept or deny the individual.

After being accepted, the individual will receive more training and equipment.

“The equipment provided is equipment that is not typically owned by the average recreational diver,’ Smith said.

He added that the equipment provided creates standardization within team. The equipment includes a dry suit, full face mask, cutting tools, a buoyancy control device and more.

Smith said there are two types of members: topside members and public safety divers.

Topside membership allows individuals who are not certified divers to assist with the dive team’s project from land.

Public safety divers are divers who are certified (at their own expense) as a recreational open water diver. Additional in-house training as well as training through Dive Rescue International is also required.

“This training teaches them how to safely and successfully dive as a public safety diver and provides a standardized base between team members,” Smith said.

Current member certifications include equipment maintenance technicians, medical divers, underwater crime scene technicians, underwater investigators, drysuit divers, ice divers and light salvage and recovery personnel.

Smith wanted to acknowledge the divers who are “vested in this community and volunteer a significant amount of time in training and attending public relations events.”

He said that the department is not immune to the deterioration or the obsoletion of the current equipment.

“The technological upgrades can be costly, especially when factoring in replacing equipment under normal wear and tear conditions. In those circumstances, our budget does not go very far. We always welcome donations and financial support,” Smith said.

Individuals who are interested in joining the team can reach out to Deputy Smith at jsmith@deltacountymi.gov or by calling the Delta County Sheriff’s Office at (906) 786 3633.

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