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Dive Team Ready, Come Sandy Or High Water 

Water Rescue Coordinator Tod Thonger and First Assistant Chief Joe Pansini are among the 60 active dive/rescue volunteers in the Northport Fire Department.

Joe Pansini was driving one of the Northport Fire Department’s chief’s cars up Main Street in June when he watched raging flood waters trap a man under a car.

With water splashing against the hood and a good Samaritan’s assistance, the first assistant chief reached under the car and pulled out a woman. Another Samaritan arrived to help lift the car as the other two fished out the man.

Both victims survived and were not injured, Second Assistant Chief Brad Wine said. The woman’s purse was even recovered later.

“If Joe doesn’t witness it, it’d be a much different situation,” Wine said.

Pansini, along with Wine, Chief Chris Hughes and half the Northport Fire Department, is a member of the dive/rescue team. They respond to emergencies on the water, pull people from the ice, and rescue victims trapped in flood waters.

“It seems with these bigger storms we’re getting, these are the norm now,” Wine said.

Water Rescue Coordinator Tod Thonger is the linchpin for all of these efforts.

“Northport is essentially surrounded by water,” he said.

Thonger joined the Northport Fire Department in 1983, becoming a diver from the beginning. He was later named captain of both hook and ladder, and rescue. When he yielded his rescue captaincy 25 years ago, he remained as head of the dive team, the oldest in New York State at 54 years old.

Today’s dive team has 16 active divers. Each must complete a 40-hour class for basic certification, plus months of weekly practice dives to gain experience before Thonger is comfortable dispatching them on calls. The dive team boss is even willing to lend them SCUBA equipment to clean the bottom of their personal boats for the experience they’ll gain. Many of the 16 are younger firefighters, with fewer time commitments and a gung-ho attitude. They’ll last about 10 years as active divers, with many helping younger replacements suit up on the boat during calls, Thonger said.

Wine said the dive team is not dispatched frequently, sometimes not even once a year. The last time they responded was in Kings Park about five years ago, when two were trapped in a submerged car. Thonger recalled his team braving the icy waters and freezing rain that winter.

The Northport Fire Department is also in rare company with their fire boat, one of a few also certified as an ambulance. Docked at Northport Harbor most of the year and Britannia Yachting Center in the winter, the 2006 Moose boat is 34 feet long, 13 feet wide and features a catamaran-design for extra stability.

Operated by a six-man crew, the vessel is equipped with a pump for fighting fires, SONAR, night vision and other gadgets. It’s also home to SCUBA equipment and a generator for 1,000-watt lights to search the water.

“It’s primarily a fire boat, but it’s set up as an ambulance,” Thonger said. That boat, Wine said, goes out about 30-40 times a year.

The fire department also has a smaller, hard-bottomed inflatable boat. They can launch the 16-foot boat with a four-man crew out of the boat ramp closest to the incident, or even off the beach.

Also falling within Thonger’s duties is coordinating high water rescues, like the one Pansini made earlier this summer. That includes using the Army surplus truck acquired by Police Chief Ric Bruckenthal in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

“As we’re getting these huge storms now, it’s getting crazy on the roads,” Wine said.

The heavy duty truck technically belongs to the Village of Northport, the chief said, although the fire department gets a fair amount of use out of it. They’ve already extended the exhaust so it can drive into deeper water, and department officials are working out arrangements with the police and highway departments to add a small pump, canopy, ropes, life preservers and other equipment on it. That could help avoid sending fire trucks worth half a million dollars into the middle of corrosive saltwater.

With only dive/rescue members stationed on the truck, Wine said they employ many of the same tactics and equipment when on the harbor. Thonger stocks 10 each of five different suits for water exposure.

Dive/rescue team members are also responsible for  basic training and participation requirements for firefighters and EMTs. That includes 85 hours of training for rookie firefighters, at least 20 percent of calls annually for firefighters, and at least 10 percent of rescue calls for EMTs.

Many neighboring departments, communities and organizations aren’t aware the Northport Fire Department has such capabilities, Thonger said. In one case, the Coast Guard was tackling a boat fire by the Northport Yacht Club for some time before a firefighter happened along the scene. The fire boat was dispatched and the flames were extinguished in minutes.

“That’s always been an issue. You don’t get the call or there’s a delay,” he said.

Northport falls amongst the middle in terms of all calls responded to, Wine said. Both the Huntington and Centerport Fire Departments have a boat with no dive team, and Cold Spring Harbor has a team with no boat, he added.

“We’re one of the few departments with everything,” the chief said.

Both Wine and Thonger griped about certain use of their services, particularly 911 calls made for preventable, non-emergencies like a boat with a dead battery or boater who ran out of gas. Many boaters in Northport waters don’t have VHF radios frequently used by mariners the world over, they said, relying on cell phones to call for help.

When a dispatcher relays the call to Northport, Thonger added, it comes over as a vessel “in distress.” It’s not until the fire boat arrives that they find out “in distress” meant no gas.

Calling 911 in Northport for help also does not cost a penny – on top of taxes – but hiring a private towing company does.

But there are times when a seemingly minor incident can actually be a more serious problem. The vessel could be capsized with people in the water, Thonger said.

“We don’t know if the boat is taking on water,” Wine added.

Knowing that, both leaders said the dive/rescue team will always give maximum effort responding to water-related calls.

“All of our responses are the same,” Thonger said.

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