25 12th Avenue South, Naples, FL
NAPLES — Some gulf fish swimming five miles out from Naples Pier may have come across a confusing scene on Wednesday.
There, underwater, a plastic dummy lay on the gulf floor near two black boxes, while about a dozen scuba divers spread out searching for them.
This was the scene of a unique training exercise, bringing together multiple emergency response agencies in Collier County to test their ability to respond to a small plane crash in the gulf.
Boats and dive teams from Collier County Sheriff’s Office, City of Naples Police and Fire department, and fire districts from North Naples, East Naples, Isles of Capri and Golden Gate were called out into the gulf for the marine search and rescue exercise.
Once they reached the site of the fake crash, divers plunged into the gulf, in search of bodies and debris.
The functional exercise was called Operation Fathom – though it could have just as easily been called “Diving for Dummies.”
But Joe Frazier, the county’s Homeland Security coordinator, said the training scenario was serious business.
“It’s designed to determine how well our (departments) respond to a downed aircraft in the gulf,” Frazier said.
Similar events have played out in real life in Collier County.
Collier Sheriff’s diver Jim Baker recalls a downed single-occupant aircraft off the Naples coast about seven years ago. There were no survivors, he said, but he had to search the aircraft for evidence.
Frazier said a key to this drill was testing the coordination between multiple agencies that had recently formed the Marine Emergency Response Community (MERC) to work out any kinks.
“It’s really a plan or procedure that combines all the marine aspects in the county,” said Mike Swanson, a deputy chief at North Naples and MERC coordinator.
Swanson said that it’s useful for these agencies to work together because marine equipment used in emergency response is limited in the county.
The drills allow all of the participants to play out their role in a given scenario, he said.
On shore, representative of the departments gathered in a mobile command center — a large bus with radios and computers — to practice communication of the coordinates of the crash.
One of the conclusions that came from the drill was the need to have multiple radio channels for communication in large-scale emergencies, said Swanson.
The more complicated the situation, the more difficult communication becomes, he said.
In this case, there was too much information to be relayed to too many sources for just one channel.
The most promising conclusion the drill provided was the expertise of the diving teams in their various roles, Frazier observed.
For most divers participating in the drill, searching for dummies and debris is nothing new – though the partnership between fire districts and the sheriff’s office was different.
However, divers from Golden Gate got the opportunity to experience something they rarely do in their own district – salt water.
Divers from the landlocked district typically do search and rescue in murky canals and lakes — the kind that most people won’t even fish in — said Bill Moyer, a Golden Gate battalion chief.
The 15 feet of visibility was welcomed by Golden Gate Fire Lt. Jason Sellers and Engineer Jake Beckman, who typically can’t see what’s in front of them when they dive. They were able to spot the dummy in minutes.
Climbing back onto the boat from the clear water, Sellers quipped, “We definitely need some salt water in our district.”
Connect with Aaron Hale at http://www.naplesnews.com/staff/aaron-hale