MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- Hidden behind French Creek, the Camp Lejeune Fire Department’s Dive and Rescue team prepared to make their training dives for the day. As the sun set behind the tree line and the water began to crest as the wind picked up, the dive team dutifully donned their wetsuits and began the pre-dive safety checklist they perform before every dive.
“It’s a little cold tonight,” said Greg Jeppson. “But I really want to get these dives in. If things go well, we will stay and do some night diving.”
Jeppson, along with eight other members of Camp Lejeune’s emergency services unit, were out in the pond, working on beginning-level dive techniques, such as underwater navigation and buoyancy control, which would lead to their becoming certified search and rescue divers. Their instructor, David Peed, explained that underwater navigation is similar to land navigation.
“We use compasses and azimuths just the same as when you’re above ground,” said Peed. “It’s just that when your underwater, you have to maintain all of your basic dive skills.”
The dive team, which is in its eighth year, is looking to increase its ranks to a full team of 18 divers. Currently, they have eight certified divers and 11 candidates who are in various stages of the dive rescue certification process.
In order to become certified as a search and rescue diver, students are required to complete open water, water rescue, public safety, and dive rescue courses. In all, the divers complete over 70 hours of classroom time and more than 18 dives.
“These men are all volunteers,” said Philip Saunders, deputy fire chief and lead diver for the rescue team. “They come in on their off-duty time, spending time in the classroom and in the water. These guys are really dedicated.”
Most of the students getting ready for the evening dives are still novices, having completed only three or four dives apiece. Most of their time spent in the water thus far has been limited to pool work and shallow ponds.
“I was excited to go diving for the first time, it really is worth all the work,” said David Jones, who was preparing for his fourth dive. “I signed up for the dive team because it sounded exciting and was something new. I have never done anything like this before.”
The base has had a water rescue team for many years. In the last ten years, however, it has grown from a one boat, surface only operation, to a four boat, dive rescue ocean capable team.
“Camp Lejeune is surrounded by water,” said Saunders. “Over the years, we recognized the need for both surface and underwater rescue abilities. And now, with the weather getting nicer, we expect to get busier.”
According to Saunders, the team also is looking to be available for emergencies out in the surrounding counties, in addition to providing search and rescue capabilities for the base. Accidents aren’t limited to Camp Lejeune, although the number of certified rescue divers in the area is limited.
“It’s hard work to become a certified rescue diver,” said Saunders. “Our men put in a lot of time and effort. Two or three out of every dozen students won’t finish the course. Not everyone is a diver.”
Every dive team is made up of both people in the water and on the surface, and according to Saunders, both are equally important.
“The divers get all the attention,” he said. “However, without the people on the surface handling safety, looking out for the divers and talking to emergency workers, the divers wouldn’t be able to do their job.”
Throughout their training, the students are reminded how important their job is, and how important it is to be professional at all times. Diving operations are often public events, such as when bodies are found underwater and when vehicles drive off of bridges and cliffs.
According to Saunders, before the dive team was formed, the fire department could only drag a net behind a boat and hope for the best. But now, along with such skills as crime scene preservation and recovery patterns, the team can quickly accomplish missions that were once considered virtually impossible.
“We have a large population here that love to use the water,” said Saunders. “Before, these dive resources weren’t available to Camp Lejeune. So we developed our own.”