Wheeling Area First Responder Dive Team Is Ready to Get Wet

WHEELING – The Wheeling Area Underwater Special Tactics Team has the training and equipment of a major port city dive team and is prepared to bring those capabilities to the waterways of the Ohio Valley and the greater tri-state area.

The 24-member team is comprised of Wheeling police officers, Ohio County sheriff’s deputies and Wheeling and Benwood firefighters.

It is governed by an executive committee consisting of the chiefs of each agency and Wheeling-Ohio County Emergency Management Agency Executive Director Lou Vargo.

When the team began dive training in September, members’ experience ranged from novice to master, according to Wheeling police Lt. Phil Redford, who commands the dive team along with Wheeling fire Capt. Mike Baker.

The team is now prepared to respond to any water-related incident, Redford said, including underwater search and recovery missions involving victims or evidence, underwater crime scene investigation, drowning and diving accidents, as well as boating accidents.

Vargo estimated that the local team is as large, if not larger, than the Pittsburgh River Rescue Unit.

The teams undergo the same training with identical equipment, so cooperation between the units would be seamless, he added.

“We don’t have a lot of river incidents, but it was very important to have this capability,” Vargo said of the dive team, which was formed as the result of a homeland security grant.

At the culmination of its training with the Pittsburgh River Rescue Unit, the local dive team will be the Pittsburgh agency’s primary backup, Redford said.

The Wheeling team’s jurisdiction spans the Northern Panhandle and the Hannibal Locks and Dam to the south, the three rivers that meet in Pittsburgh to the east and back down south to Morgantown, according to Vargo.

“It’s not only an excellent resource for the Wheeling area, it’s an excellent resource for the entire Ohio Valley,” said Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger.

Last week, the team was training in the Ohio River’s back channel along Wheeling Island, where divers located three automobiles at the bottom of the riverbed.

It was estimated that the cars are trapped under 10-15 years’ worth of muck and likely will have to stay where they rest.

Redford said team members will continue to train at least two days a month.