40 minutes to make the rescue: Dive team members train on Lake Mina

Basic search skills and written test were part of the three-day training.

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A member of a dive rescue team from Pierre, South Dakota participated in a three-day training hosted by the Douglas County Dive Rescue Team Sept. 13-15. As part of the training, the divers worked on sweep patterns in Lake Mina on Monday, Sept. 14. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)

When called out for a possible drowning, dive rescue teams usually have under an hour to get to a scene, get in the water and start their search.

“From that point, if the person is not found within about 30 minutes, it becomes recovery so the family has some closure,” said Steve Wilson, an instructor with Dive Rescue International.

Wilson, who has been with the Colorado company since 1997, was in Douglas County last week to train members of the Douglas County Dive Rescue Team. Wilson’s public safety career includes 39 years as a firefighter and 21 years as a police officer/SWAT medic, and he is currently the assistant fire chief with the Ridgeland fire department in Mississippi.

During the three-day class, Wilson said divers learned basic search skills to become certified rescue divers. The training includes classroom instruction, time in a pool and in a lake where they put their skills to the test. All participants have to pass a written exam, as well as a real-life scenario where they have to rescue three victims.

“They get 40 minutes to get all the victims out and operate as a team to do so,” he said. “And although the written test is important, the most important is how they solve the problem of finding the victims.”


Besides the four new members of the Douglas County Dive Rescue Team, there were nine other participants, including public safety divers from the Brown County Sheriff’s Office in New Ulm, as well as from two law enforcement agencies in South Dakota – Minnehaha County and the city of Pierre.

The 10-member Douglas County Dive Rescue Team, led by Sgt. Greg Windhurst with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, is made up of employees from the sheriff’s office, including road deputies and dispatchers, along with staff members from the jail and administration office.

The new Douglas County members are Nicole Mahalla, records; Aaron Stern, road deputy; Joe Ducept, jailer; and Jake Alvord, jailer.

Windhurst, who took over as the leader of the team in 2007, said Douglas County has hosted six different Dive Rescue International classes in the past 13 or so years.

The team provides an emergency response to water related emergencies at any time and in all weather conditions. Boating accidents, drowning victims and vehicles through the ice account for most callouts, but the team is also trained for thin ice, black water, surface rescue and evidence recovery.

The team trains on a monthly basis and Wilson said dive team members have to recertify every three years.

During the three-day training, divers learned a variety of basic skills including set up and recovery, scene evaluation, safety protocols, interviewing witnesses, sweep patterns and line signals to name a few.

Wilson said although many departments have some sort of communication devices, divers need to learn basic line signals in case their coms don’t work.


For sweep patterns, he said there are several types including a basic sweep and a parallel sweep. In addition, there almost always is a primary diver, a safety diver, a 90% diver and a tender, with these positions being rotated to give divers a rest break.

Regardless if dive teams are searching from shore or in a boat in the middle of a lake, positions are always rotated. The different sweep patterns can be adapted to any environment, said Wilson.

At the end of the training, Wilson said it is fun to watch the divers solve the complex problem of finding their three victims as they put everything they learn to the test.

Windhurst said if there is ever a situation where the dive rescue team could be called out, for people not to hesitate and to call 911 immediately.

Time is of the essence is those types of situations, he said.

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Douglas County Dive Rescue Team members Nicole Mahalla (left) and Jake Alvord (right), work with Dive Rescue International instructor Steve Wilson during a training on Lake Mina Monday, Sept. 14. Mahalla and Alvord are two of the newest members of the 10-member team. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)

Celeste Edenloff is the special projects editor and a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press. She has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in 2016 to once again report on the community she calls home.
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