Ten years after it was formed, Bridgehampton Fire District's Dive Team was formally disbanded recently, despite outcries from its own members and surrounding fire departments.
The Board of Fire Commissioners — after hearing a recommendation from department chiefs — voted unanimously to dissolve the team of five divers and 13 members in total, which had also served on a town-wide rescue team. The commissioners cited high-risk events that are much more often recovery operations, as opposed to rescues.
"Why should volunteers risk their lives to conduct a recovery operation?" asked Steven Halsey, the chair of the Board of Fire Commissioners. "We're trying to limit the exposure of our membership and their families. There are people who get paid to do recoveries — police officers, Coast Guard, bay constables. We don't need people to risk their lives to recover a dead body."
However, the volunteers themselves — who were covered under the department's umbrella insurance policy — said that the decision leaves not only the dive team weaker throughout East Hampton Town, but also leaves Bridgehampton at risk and will likely strain other departments. More than a dozen letters were sent to the commissioners, saying the decision was "disturbing" and brought "dismay," "displeasure," and "disappointment" among other feelings.
"I can't believe the years of training, that started back when John O'Brien was only an assistant chief and through his tenure and on for the chiefs that followed him, are about to flush away the talent, hard work and camaraderie that has blossomed," wrote Raymond Kiesel, the deputy chief of Suffolk County Fire Academy.
"Everything in life is risky," said John Healey, a former fire chief in Bridgehampton and president of the East Hampton Town Wide Dive Team. The EHTWDT was created in 2010 at the behest of the town chiefs, as individual departments struggled to keep their dive teams afloat. "These guys are trained and certified, we have plenty of insurance covering them. I could see if someone has got hurt or died doing this. But we've only grown in size and interest."
Halsey said the commissioners began considering disbanding the dive team two years ago, the same year the district joined the EHTWDT. A May 6 letter from Chief Timothy Doran, also signed by First Assistant Chief Gary Horsburg and Second Assistant Chief Thomas Jenkins, detailed reasons why the chiefs recommended disbanding the team.
Doran and Horsburg were not available for comment.
The chiefs concluded, "We feel that the risk versus reward ratio is far too high. It would be a great tragedy to injure or kill a member of our department at such a high risk, low potential reward situation."
The commissioners met two weeks later and formally voted to disband the dive team. Moving forward, the dive team is "allowed and encouraged to participate in all water rescue drills and operations with the Rescue Squad," which will claim responsibility of the dive team's two rescue boats.
Having no insurance coverage to perform recovery dives, neither Healey nor the other four divers will be able to perform dives. While their help as tenders and boat drivers would be welcome, divers are needed most, he said.
"We're called the town wide dive team because we're divers," Healey said. "We're not a townwide boat club ... We're a specialized team, like a heavy rescue squad or hazmat team, or rapid intervention team. Not just anyone can say, 'I'll just jump in and get him.' It doesn't happen that way."