During the summer of 1952 two drownings took place within weeks of each other at the Black Rock Dam in Phoenixville Borough. Volunteer firemen from the Borough’s Friendship Fire Company responded each time only to realize they were not trained nor equipped to handle such a call. Both times a recently-formed diving unit had to be called in from neighboring Montgomery County to work the incidents. Because of that a committee was formed within Friendship Fire Company to look at the feasibility of starting a dive team within Friendship Fire Company to serve the local community. History had shown that with Black Rock Dam, several miles of the Schuylkill River and the French Creek all passing through the Borough the need for some kind of local underwater recovery resource was in fact there. And so, for the next several months, the committee conducted research and then made their recommendation known to Friendship’s Board of Directors, and then to the membership in general. In October of 1952 the membership of Friendship Fire Company approved a motion to ‘start up’ a diving unit to be housed at Friendship along with the fire trucks already there.
A used bread delivery truck was purchased as the first ‘dive truck’ and a member donated a 10 foot aluminum row boat. The Fire Company purchased a 5 HP motor for the boat; a large air compressor for the truck; and all of the DESCO full-face-mask equipment necessary to safely put a diver under water at that time to depths of up to 25 feet. A year later the Company added a more advanced HOOKAH system which allowed the diver to be encapsulated in a large canvas ‘suit’ and thereby to still safely dive in cold water. Training of several firefighters to be the ‘first divers’ at Friendship was conducted in the spring of 1953 by members of the Philadelphia Police Harbor Patrol Unit at a local outdoor pool. By the summer of 1953 Friendship’s Dive Team was equipped, operational and ready to respond to calls.
For the next many years Friendship’s Dive Team worked underwater recovery incidents in Phoenixville and the immediately surrounding communities where reservoirs, creeks and other water hazards were located. As word spread of the availability of this ‘new’ resource the Dive Team from Friendship Fire Company traveled to many locations within Chester County, the tri-County area and then the Tri-State area as well to assist local Police and Fire Departments with underwater recovery efforts.
In the mid-1960’s manpower for firefighting began to wane at Friendship as the Company went into what history has shown to be one of many up and down cyclic trends of manpower that every volunteer fire house experiences. And that reduction in manpower directly affected the manpower of Friendship’s Dive Team as well. Right at that time a member of the Fire Company who was very active with the Boy Scout program was looking to start a new ‘Explorer Scout’ program somewhere in the Phoenixville area. After some discussion Friendship Fire Company agreed to sponsor Explorer Post 58 as a means of supplying manpower to its Dive Team. And so interested young men, as young as the age of 14, were able to train to become dive team members, and then at the age of 16 to become divers. That staffing arrangement took the dive team through the early 1970’s where changing mores and several other factors saw the Explorer Post move from Friendship to another sponsoring organization to perform another purpose. And so once again Friendship’s Dive Team faced a critical manpower shortage.
Also during the late 1960’s SCUBA began to come into its own as to the availability of private training and equipment affordability. Friendship’s Dive Team was granted money from the Fire Company treasury to send several Fire Company members to SCUBA training and then to purchase three complete sets of SCUBA gear to be placed on a brand new dive truck which had been purchased by the Fire Company. That afforded Friendship’s Dive Team a diving system which was far less manpower-intensive to use and provided a much quicker way to get a diver into the water than the surface supplied diving system which was still kept in service.
The 1970’s, 80’ and 90’s saw some extreme highs and some extreme lows for the Friendship Diving Unit. Hurricane Agnes came through the Phoenixville Area and Friendship’s Dive Team personnel spent countless hours in service performing rescues, evacuations and sadly also two recoveries of drowning victims. Manpower for the dive team saw a substantial boost when Friendship allowed firefighters from the other two Fire Companies in Phoenixville as well as those from surrounding area Fire Companies to become members of its Dive Team based solely on their membership in other Fire Companies. During those years it was not uncommon to find many of the same individuals putting out a house fire in the morning, working the recovery of a drowning victim in the afternoon, and then running a few ambulance calls before they went to bed. Those years also saw the Friendship’s Dive Team take a huge step forward in their services provided. Upon being summoned to a call of six individuals stranded on a fallen tree in the storm-swollen French Creek in a neighboring Township Friendship’s Dive Team was confronted by a call the likes of which they had never encountered before. During the course of working the incident all six people were successfully rescued but Friendship’s rescue boat was damaged beyond repair and two rescuers nearly became drowning victim’s themselves. It was at that point that it was dramatically realized that just because an individual was trained as a diver he/she was not automatically capable of performing a technical water rescue.
The years that followed saw Friendship’s Dive Team being the first emergency services provider in this area to expand into specialized water rescue training and services. A Community fund drive was organized to replace the damaged rescue row boat with a Zodiac inflatable boat. That boat was far more suited for underwater recovery and water rescue operations and was, as far as can be determined, the first Zodiac inflatable to be placed into service in the Tri-County area by any emergency services provider. Shortly thereafter a second smaller Zodiac inflatable was purchased and placed into service. Those years also saw the Team’s vehicle fleet expand from a single truck – also used for vehicle rescue and general fire ground support when purchased – to adding a second 4x4 vehicle, on up to today’s fleet of four specialized vehicles, one dive scene support trailer and three boats. Friendship’s Dive Team also took a giant leap forward in the field of water rescue during those years. Right after the French Creek call the only certified water rescue training then available was from the State of Ohio. Two members of Friendship’s Dive Team were sent to Ohio for a two-week specialized water rescue course which allowed them to return as certified water rescue instructors. Months later those two team members were contacted by the Boating Safety, Education and Training office of the Pennsylvania Fish Commission and asked to team up with the Chief of that Department to devise, write and teach the official Pennsylvania water rescue training program which was then subsequently adopted by the Pennsylvania Fire Academy and the National Association for Search and Rescue. With the addition of a cache of specialized equipment and proper training Friendship’s Dive Team was the first in the area to branch-off into the providing of specialized water rescue services to the public. In recognition of the fact Friendship’s Board of Directors decreed that the official name of the organization be changed to “Friendship Diving-Rescue Unit”. Sadly, however, those years also saw another great decrease in manpower. Both fire suppression and EMS had become so specialized that the time required for training and service providing allowed most everyone providing those services no time left to train for, and provide, underwater recovery and water rescue services. And so by necessity those years saw the Dive Team begin to be staffed by ‘non-emergency services personnel’ who were usually not already aligned with any fire company or ambulance service.
Moving on through the early years of 2000 Friendship’s Dive Team continued to re-group, re-train, re-equip and grow better and stronger as a Team. In 2010 the Phoenixville Fire Department, which Friendship’s Dive Team was a part of by Borough ordinance, underwent a consolidation study and effort. As a result, in 2011 the Phoenixville Borough Fire Chief relieved Friendship Fire Company from their ordinance-required responsibility of providing fire suppression services to the Borough of Phoenixville. Based upon that action Friendship’s Board of Directors decided to dispose of the two fire engines that they owned and then to concentrate on continuing to field the specialized underwater recovery and water rescue services that they themselves were uniquely positioned to provide. At the end of 2011, Phoenixville Borough Council passed a resolution to acknowledge the Friendship Diving-Rescue Unit as a provider of water-related emergency services to the Borough of Phoenixville, but no longer as a part of, or under the umbrella of, the Phoenixville Fire Department.
In May of 2012 Phoenixville Borough Council finally produced the full documentation supporting that resolution as well as some proposed amendments to the Borough’s Fire Protection Ordinance. The wording of the resolution directly tied Friendship and its Diving-Rescue Unit to the proposed ordinance amendments which very specifically continued to bind Friendship and its Dive Team to membership in the Phoenixville Fire Department and continued to place administrative and operational control of Friendship’s Dive Team in the hands of the Borough’s Fire Chief and his subordinate chief officers.
When a public hearing was held regarding adoption of the two proposed documents the two designated representatives from Friendship spoke as to Friendship’s opposition and to the fact that Council’s intent was in direct conflict with an informal agreement Friendship felt had been reached with the Borough Manager, the Borough Fire Chief and Council’s designated Council/Fire Department liaison. Adoption was continued pending further discussions. In late May of 2012 Phoenixville Borough Council formally adopted both the resolution and the proposed ordinance amendments without change.
Throughout the entire course of the multi-year Fire Department consolidation discussions Friendship’s Board of Directors never once wavered from stating their opinion that Friendship itself was better positioned and able to manage and support its specialized Diving-Rescue Unit than was the Borough, the Phoenixville Fire Department and its fire suppression-oriented chief officers. In line with that statement Friendship never once wavered from stating that its Diving-Rescue Unit was not to be considered ‘in play’ as to be part of fire company consolidation discussions and was, instead, to be considered to become, and operate as, an independent rescue services provider, solely under Friendship Fire Company’s control post-consolidation (Friendship had remained a legally-chartered entity after it was unilaterally relieved by the Fire Chief of its ordinance-driven responsibility for providing fire protection services to the Borough). Thus it was strongly felt by the Board that Friendship could not in good conscience abide by Council’s recent action. Further, the Board felt that since Friendship itself was now paying all costs associated with fielding its specialized service, including providing it’s own workman’s compensation insurance coverage, and was receiving absolutely no financial or other type support from the Borough, that blindly handing off administrative control of its Diving-Rescue Unit to the Borough and the Phoenixville Fire Department would constitute a gross violation of the Board’s fiduciary responsibility.
In early June of 2012 Friendship instructed its legal council to formally notify the appropriate officials within the Borough of Phoenixville that Friendship could not and would not consider itself bound by the actions of Council and therefore, at that time, was officially renouncing its membership in the Phoenixville Fire Department. Further that the Dive Team would continue to operate as an independent entity (no longer under the umbrella of the PFD) responsive to its own elected/appointed operational officers only and administratively accountable to no one but Friendship’s Board of Directors. The notification concluded by advising the Borough that, in the interest of public safety and in continuing our stated mission, Friendship would, at no cost to the Borough, continue to accept being named as an emergency services provider and continue to provide specialized water rescue and underwater recovery services to the Borough of Phoenixville if called to respond to any such incident within the Borough. Further, that at all such incidents the Diving-Rescue Unit would operate under the ICS system just as it does at all incidents to which it is called to respond. Both the Chester County Department of Emergency Services and the Chester County Fire Chief’s Association were also formally advised of this action.
The future of the Friendship Diving-Rescue Unit is yet to be written. But our compass is firmly set towards a course of remaining the emergency services provider of The Friendship Fire Company which to this day remains a duly-chartered organization under Pennsylvania Corporate Law. The officers and members of Friendship’s Dive Team, fully supported by the Board of Directors and members of The Friendship Fire Company, remain fully committed to provide specialized underwater recovery, water rescue, ice rescue and evidence recovery services to the citizens of Phoenixville and surrounding communities, the Police and Fire Company organizations that serve them, as well as to assist any Police or Fire Department anywhere in need of our specialized services, wherever and whenever we may be called to do so.