County to re­struc­ture dive team

Group’s board to ask to be un­der au­thor­ity of Sher­iff’s Of­fice

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - TOM SISSOM

BEN­TONVILLE — The group that will pro­vide emer­gency dive team ser­vices in Ben­ton County for the near fu­ture has been called upon for as­sis­tance be­fore, of­fi­cials said.

The Ben­ton County dive team sus­pended its oper­a­tions af­ter the ar­rest of two of its vol­un­teer mem­bers. Chris Perry and James Downum were vol­un­teers on the dive team, said Sgt. Shan­non Jenk­ins, a spokes­woman for the Sher­iff’s Of­fice. They were ar­rested Aug. 3 in con­nec­tion with theft of ser­vices. They are ac­cused of us­ing dive team equip­ment for per­sonal busi­ness. The men al­legedly used a pon­toon boat and air bags be­long­ing to the dive team to raise a sunken boat and were paid $2,500 for the work, ac­cord­ing to a prob­a­ble cause af­fi­davit.

The Ben­ton County dive team board voted the same

day to sus­pend oper­a­tions and ask the Tri- County Search and Res­cue dive team to re­spond to calls in Ben­ton County un­til a new struc­ture for the group is es­tab­lished.

Vester Cripps, Gen­try fire chief and a mem­ber of the Ben­ton County dive team board, said the board will ask the county to draft an or­di­nance plac­ing the team un­der the au­thor­ity of the Sher­iff ’s Of­fice. The dive team is­sue is on the agenda when the Quo­rum Court’s Pub­lic Safety Com­mit­tee meets at 6 p.m. Tues­day.

Cripps and Robert McGowen, Ben­ton County’s emer­gency ser­vices ad­min­is­tra­tor, both said Ben­ton County has worked with the Tri- County dive team in the past and the team is well-qual­i­fied to do the work needed.

Lori Mc­Connell is head of the Madi­son County De­part­ment of Emer­gency Man­age­ment. She also works with Tri-County Search and Res­cue, which she said is an in­de­pen­dent, non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides vol­un­teers for emer­gency ser­vices in Madi­son, Car­roll and New­ton coun­ties. The group, which has been ac­tive

for about 10 years, op­er­ates on money raised from grants and do­na­tions and is not tied to any other agency, Mc­Connell said.

“It evolved into a three- county op­er­a­tion,” Mc­Connell said. “We started in Madi­son County, then Car­roll County and New­ton County.”

The or­ga­ni­za­tion has about 130 vol­un­teer mem­bers, Mc­Connell said. The team does swift wa­ter res­cue work and ground searches as well as re­cov­ery work in drown­ing sit­u­a­tions.

“We av­er­age two or three calls per month and are ac­ti­vated on prob­a­bly 80 per­cent of those calls,” Mc­Connell said. “Those are mostly ground searches.”

The type of work the group is called to do varies among the three coun­ties that make up its pri­mary ser­vice area, Mc­Connell said.

“Madi­son County doesn’t have any ma­jor bod­ies of wa­ter, aside from the rivers and creeks,” she said. “New­ton County is the same. Car­roll County is the only one that has the big bod­ies of wa­ter.”

Car­roll County con­tains Lake Leather­wood and por­tions of Beaver Lake and Ta­ble Rock Lake.

The Ben­ton County dive team board, ap­pointed by the county judge, was es­tab­lished

in 2009 af­ter con­flicts arose be­tween two dive teams then op­er­at­ing in the county. The or­di­nance that cre­ated a board to over­see the com­bined teams cited prob­lems with com­mand and con­trol at scenes. News­pa­per re­ports at the time de­tail dis­putes about when a sit­u­a­tion should tran­si­tion from a res­cue op­er­a­tion to one fo­cused on re­cov­ery of a body and preser­va­tion of pos­si­ble crime scenes.

Brenda Guen­ther, comptroller, said Ben­ton County has $57,500 bud­geted for the dive team in 2017. Of that, $500 goes to cover the cost of in­sur­ance for the vol­un­teers and the re­main­der is for sup­plies and other ser­vices, she said.

Pat Adams, jus­tice of the peace, is on the Pub­lic Safety Com­mit­tee. Adams also worked for the Sher­iff ’s Of­fice in the past, in­clud­ing time on the Beaver Lake pa­trol. He said hav­ing the Sher­iff’s Of­fice in com­mand of the team makes sense.

“I’ve said all along, even go­ing back into the 1990s, any time there’s a death on the wa­ter it’s a crime scene un­til the coro­ner or the Sher­iff ’s Of­fice de­clares it oth­er­wise,” Adams said. “I never un­der­stood the logic of hav­ing two dive teams like we had in the past. I’m not

say­ing they didn’t do a good job, but I see no logic in pay­ing for two dive teams when we only need one. And the one needs to be un­der the Sher­iff’s Of­fice.”

The dive team is usu­ally busiest dur­ing the sum­mer and fall, Adams said. Ben­ton County prob­a­bly av­er­ages four or five calls a year, but Adams has seen the num­ber drop as low as two and in other years go as high as eight or nine.

“It’s typ­i­cally dur­ing the tourist sea­son when Beaver Lake is busy,” he said. “Some­times dur­ing duck hunt­ing sea­son you’ll get a call or two when some­one went out on the lake too far to get back and ends up with their boat float­ing round with their de­coys.”

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