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Lathrop-Manteca has only unit in SJ County
Diver prospect Will Norman pulls dive team member Sean Wooten for a full lap while training in the Lathrop High swimming pool for the Lathrop-Manteca Fire Districts water rescue unit. - photo by HIME ROMERO

LATHROP – The Lathrop-Manteca Fire District is responsible for more than 40 miles of shoreline.

That’s 40 miles of land that stretches along the San Joaquin River and through River Islands and Oakwood Shores. It’s  a vast expanse where boaters, fisherman, swimmers, hikers and just regular people take to the water during the Central Valley’s hot summer months.

And sometimes those people get in trouble.

Whether it’s a capsized boat or a swimmer swept away in the seemingly serene river, accidents in and around the water happen.

That’s why the district organized and deploys not only a team of divers, but trained water rescue personnel as well. The goal is that a well-rounded department versed in all scenarios will help save lives even in the most extreme circumstances.

“It’s an opportunity for us to provide a service that might save a life, and on the flipside, closure in the instance if tragedy were to strike,” said Battalion Chief Larry Madoski. “Recovery is part of what it is that this unit was designed for, and in those instances they want to be able to lay a family member to rest.

“We don’t ever want a situation to get to that point, but we’re trained and able to get to that point if we have to.”

It was a tragic incident in 2007 that initially prompted the district’s administration to look at forming their water rescue and dive squad. After a swimmer had gone missing, the district called in the City of Stockton’s dive team and a brief search yielded no results. The news was delivered on-site to the family member who watched the person go underwater.

The search for the person’s body wasn’t conducted.

That sort of scenario, Madoski said, is something that nobody in emergency services ever wants to be a part of. Training began shortly thereafter.

But rescuing somebody in the water isn’t necessarily the same as rescuing somebody that’s trapped in a smoke-filled room.

All firefighters, Madoski said, are trained to control their breathing and calm their nerves in tense situations. But diving in open water where mud and silt can at times bring visibility down to zero adds an additional dimension that takes a special kind of person to tackle.

Currently the district employs 10 certified divers. Another is currently in training.

“There’s a physiological response that happens – you have to have purposeful movement when you’re underwater like that,” he said. “Every one of our firefighters is trained to slow their breathing and act quickly and decisively in a smoke-filled environment. There are different skills involved when you’re talking about doing those things under water.”

Having personnel versed in water rescue and recovery has also made Lathrop-Manteca Fire District a nice friend to have.

As the only certified recovery team in San Joaquin County, the Stockton Fire Department routinely taps Lathrop whenever they have a situation that calls for them to enter the water. Much the same way that a pair of firefighters is needed to stand outside of a structure fire when two go in, a diver must be ready to enter the water whenever one is already subsurface.

Top water rescue scenarios are also a big part of the team’s training, and with an average of nine incidents each year, keeping skills fresh remains a top priority.

“It’s an important benefit for our residents and for the surrounding communities,” Madoski said. “We’re a part of quite a few mutual-aid agreements, and we want to be of benefit to as many people as possible.”