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Hall County dive team practices in pool, teaches new members to avoid panic
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Brandon Pruitt joins fellow members of the Hall County Dive Team Thursday, Feb. 1 2017 at the Frances Meadows Aquatic Center for a team practice. Use of the pool allows divers to hone their skills while the water is too cold in Lake Lanier. - photo by Scott Rogers

In the last lane of the pool at Frances Meadows Aquatics Center, Blake Forrester steps to the water’s edge in his dive gear, complete with neon orange flippers.  

At the other side, he has to cut through a maze of strings blocking his way. After losing his knife and shears, Forrester resorted to untying the knots by hand to free himself.

“I told you — trial by fire,” dive team member Craig Hannula said to Forrester when he surfaced and removed his mask.

The Hall County Sheriff’s Office dive team used the aquatics center Thursday to practice drills ahead of the busy lake season.

Dive team commander Robert Smith said the pool allows them to control the environment and “teach them to work in a stressful environment.”

“The only thing I can’t fix while they’re in the water is panic,” he said.

Some of the drills include putting the gear at the bottom of the pool for the diver to retrieve and get set. In another scenario, a dive team member will turn off another person’s tank to practice switching to the secondary cylinder.

“If we didn’t have a pool, there’s a lot of these drills we couldn’t do,” Smith said.

Below the surface, there is zero visibility for the divers making recoveries in Lake Lanier. For practice, Smith threw two plastic bags to the diver to put in his mask to block his vision.

Of the 10-member dive team, four of them are considered new divers. Two of them have been there for a year, and the other half started in December.

“They’ve done one recovery so far, and we noted that they needed to work on their bagging technique,” Smith said.

Because 90 percent of the work for the dive team surrounds retrieving bodies, Smith said the team will work on securing the body in the bag and zipping it up before reaching the surface out of respect for the person’s family.

The team is not in the pool just because it’s warmer, Smith said. During training, the divers will have a “cold water day,” spending hours in frigid temperatures to stay acclimated.

The team is ramping up for the Memorial Day weekend, when the amount of traffic on the lake explodes.