GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In Grand Rapids, water rescues in the Grand River are not that uncommon, happening maybe 15 to 20 times a year.
Those numbers are expected to climb with Grand Rapids Whitewater’s planned Restore the Rapids project.
But the city has had to rely on help from Kent County Sheriff’s Department divers and that help often came too late, if it came at all.
Starting soon, that will change. On Thursday, on the Grand River near Johnson Park in Walker, the last of 20 Grand Rapids firefighters finished their last day of training to become certified in rescue diving. They worked on what is called “current diving.”
It’s the city’s first-ever dive team.
“Diving in current water is way more challenging,” firefighter Carlye Scheer said after spending 15 minutes diving behind a water rescue boat. “We didn’t really know what to expect since it is most of our first times.”
Until now, water rescue in Grand Rapids has meant taking boats onto the river and using a pole to feel the river bottom, then waiting at times for a dive team from the Kent County Sheriff’s Department.
“You may or may not have one (a dive team) in the area, and so this will give us a very fast metro area response right out of the Bridge Street station,” Grand Rapids Fire Department Capt. Joel Boyer said.
The team, Boyer said, will also respond to neighboring communities.
“This is cold water,” he said as his team trained in the Grand. “Every water in Michigan is considered cold water. And our medical protocols give a person one hour, so if we can get them out in that one hour, they have a chance of survival. This gives them a better chance.”
“We could very well have a diver, if we get a good location very quickly, we could have a diver in the water within less than 10 minutes,” he said.
The fire department started assembling the dive team about two years ago as talk about restoring the rapids grew more serious. The project would remove dams and add rocks, drawing kayakers and other whitewater lovers. Grand Rapids WhiteWater hopes to start work on the project next year, according to its website.
“With the Grand Rapids WhiteWater project and the restoration downtown, we anticipate a lot more people utilizing the water,” Boyer said. “We’ll have the rapids back, there’ll be more flow, the potential for more danger.”
Over the last two weeks, Colorado-based Dive Rescue International has trained and certified the divers.
“It’s been an extensive course,” said firefighter Scheer, who finished her training Thursday. “We’ve been in class for two weeks now and all of our skill sets have increased exponentially and we feel like we’re going to be prepared to save a life.”
The fire department expects the dive team to be fully operational in about two weeks.