North Collier firefighters saving lives on and under water

Published: May 19, 2021 6:19 PM EDT

The North Collier Fire & Rescue Department does it all from air, land, and sea – and even under the surface.

We’ve all seen the fire truck roll up on a scene, but what about the fireboat? Or firefighting scuba drivers? WINK News Safety & Security Specialist Rich Kolko and Videojournalist Eric Mills saw them in action.

The fire truck arrives, but instead of pulling hoses, they grab wetsuits and scuba tanks, then head to the fireboat.

The mission: an underwater rescue for NCFR’s Michael Matarazzo and the dive team.

“Most of the time we are in zero viz [visibility],” Matarazzo said.

This day, conditions were good in the Gulf, but that’s not the usual situation.

“Most of the time we are in canals and stuff like that where the bottom is usually pretty silty,” he explained. “You’re not going to see anything. You’re lucky if you see your hand out in front of you.”

That’s why they learn to search by hand.

“Everything’s off of feel.”

Some things you don’t want to find.

“If we stir up the bottom or make any noise, the sharks and the alligators, they kind of stay away.”

While on the surface, Lt. Brent Loewel, assistant dive-rescue coordinator, controls the search pattern.

“We have somebody that goes overboard, and we need to find them, we come here and we’ll have to start our search patterns with our dive team,” Loewel said.

Divers search using lines deployed underwater and can communicate while down below.

But it’s not all about diving.

“We can fight fires on water,” Loewel said. “We do a lot of rescues, whether it’s a boat sinking, missing person, kayaker missing, you name it, we run it.”

The team recently worked with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office to successfully rescue two missing kayakers.

Lt. Ted Vath has been on the boat crew for more than 20 years and recalled one recent rescue.

“It was late at night, he was coming back from Key West, he would anchor offshore and he broke anchor…in really, really rough seas,” he said. “We got him off the boat safely that night.”

No day on the water is the same.

“All types of medical calls, emergency marine rescue type calls, fires, a lot of stuff happens out here on the weekends on the boat,” Vath said.

These aren’t weekend divers. It takes about two years for them to get certified to be part of the dive team.