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Community gives dive team buoyancy

  • Northfield Dive Rescue Team Leader Bill Ryan helps team member Jeffrey Ryan-Guy into one of the team's new underwater radio facemasks Saturday. The team recently bought four of the facemasks and a shoreline unit with $12,000 raised through donations and events.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

    Northfield Dive Rescue Team Leader Bill Ryan helps team member Jeffrey Ryan-Guy into one of the team's new underwater radio facemasks Saturday. The team recently bought four of the facemasks and a shoreline unit with $12,000 raised through donations and events.
    Recorder/David Rainville

  • Northfield Dive Rescue Team member Jeffrey Ryan-Guy tries on one of the team's new, radio-equipped full facemasks Saturday. The team bought four of the masks, and a shoreline unit, with $12,000 of donated funds.<br/>Recorde/David Rainville

    Northfield Dive Rescue Team member Jeffrey Ryan-Guy tries on one of the team's new, radio-equipped full facemasks Saturday. The team bought four of the masks, and a shoreline unit, with $12,000 of donated funds.
    Recorde/David Rainville

  • Northfield Dive Rescue Team Leader Bill Ryan helps team member Jeffrey Ryan-Guy into one of the team's new underwater radio facemasks Saturday. The team recently bought four of the facemasks and a shoreline unit with $12,000 raised through donations and events.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville
  • Northfield Dive Rescue Team member Jeffrey Ryan-Guy tries on one of the team's new, radio-equipped full facemasks Saturday. The team bought four of the masks, and a shoreline unit, with $12,000 of donated funds.<br/>Recorde/David Rainville

NORTHFIELD — Communication is key, especially when lives are on the line.

For more than 25 years, a tug rope and a few simple signals were all the Northfield Dive Rescue Team had to relay orders and information between divers and the shoreline support crew. Now, team members can talk to each other, thanks to an underwater radio system and the countless donors who ponied up $12,000 for it.

“People were very generous,” said team leader Bill Ryan. “Individuals, groups and organizations are scratching to get by themselves, but they still managed to donate, and it’s very appreciated.”

The system consists of four full-face scuba masks with integrated radios, and a single on-shore unit. The team has tested the radios a few times in indoor swimming pools.

“There’s definitely a learning curve to it,” Ryan said. “It’s different from a traditional scuba setup.”

In a typical setup, a regulator held in the mouth supplies the diver with air, and goggles keep water out of the eyes and nose. It may work well for breathing and seeing, but it’s not very conducive to speaking.

“These will make our efforts much more efficient, and increase safety for everyone,” said Ryan.

The radio setups are kept by individual members in different parts of the team’s coverage area. Ryan said this allows them to quickly respond to incidents wherever they may occur.

Though the dive team responds to incidents throughout Franklin County and beyond, it doesn’t receive any municipal or state funding.

“Our annual lobster bake is our biggest donation drive,” said Ryan. “Some years, it just covers our annual expenses — fuel, taxes and things like that. Other years we have a great turnout, and we can earmark some of the proceeds for equipment.”

Last year was one of the better years, he said, and the team put some of the proceeds toward the radio system. The rest came from a handful of other fundraisers, as well as several firefighters’ associations, other groups and private citizens.

The team tries to get the most it can out of its limited funds, and that falls to every one of its more than 30 members, who have to buy their own gear, like wetsuits and swim fins.

Though not all members are divers, the ones that are must provide their own scuba gear and must pay out of pocket for dive certification. Costly, perhaps, but Ryan said many of the members are recreational divers, and joined the team so they could put their skills to use helping others.

While divers pay for their personal gear, there are a few items that the dive team purchases, because they’re used by everyone. These include life jackets, helmets and cold-weather rescue suits, as well as ropes, search lines and the dive team’s bus and boats.

Team members put in a lot of volunteer hours, and not just when they’re on a rescue or recovery mission.

The team conducts several training sessions every year. In March, they donned cold-water rescue suits and cut a hole in the frozen surface of a Northfield pond for the annual ice rescue training. Saturday, they grabbed their boogie boards, wetsuits, helmets and fins, and headed down the Millers River in Erving for a swift-water rescue exercise.

That training will come in handy this weekend, when dive team members will line the Millers River from Athol to Orange Saturday for the 51st annual River Rat Race. They’re bound to pluck at least a few capsized canoeists out of the frigid waters, especially toward the start of the course, where canoes careen into each other through the bottleneck of the South Main Street bridge in Athol as close to 300 teams jockey for position.

That, too, is a volunteer endeavor, said Ryan, though organizers do cover the cost of fuel for the many boats the team uses to patrol the river during the race. He said it also fosters some good community relations for the team.

“That was definitely proven during our fund drive ­— we had several donations come from east county,” said Ryan. “Those people love us, and we love them,”

You can reach David Rainville at: drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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