The daring rescue of the young Thailand soccer team members stranded in a flooded cave hundreds of feet below ground has gripped the world and dominated press reports in the last couple of weeks. Few Kansas City residents are aware that Kansas City has their own organization of volunteer Public Safety Divers; a small group of volunteers in the metropolitan area with training and equipment similar to the divers involved in that effort. The Lee’s Summit Underwater Recovery team is a non-profit, donation supported group of ten to twelve volunteer divers trained specifically in Public Safety Diving and utilizing dry suits and full-face breathing apparatus, committed to rescue and recovery services to the Greater Kansas City area.
Lee’s Summit Underwater Recovery, Inc. provides rescue and recovery services at no charge to local government entities and public safety departments, and assists individuals with submerged vehicles and boat recoveries for a fee or insurance claim.
DeWayne Duhon, President of the organization, says of the group “This isn’t like going scuba diving in the Bahamas. It takes an extraordinary kind of person to willingly dive into near zero visibility environments in various bodies of water. We encounter hazards such as sharp edges from vehicles or trash, icy conditions and fast-moving water while attempting to locate bodies or lost items. We’re all volunteers who joined this organization as a way to give back to the community. Our first priority is always personal safety. The Thai ex-Seal that died in the caves is a perfect example of what can happen in that kind of dangerous situation.”
Brian Meinershagen, Vice President of the organization, reiterated the challenges that divers face. “We dive in lakes, ponds, rivers and other environments, and most of those are so full of silt you can’t see your hand in front of your face. To be safe and effective, we train extensively and rely heavily on our equipment and each other. Dry suits and other specialty gear is part of that safety and effectiveness. The work we’re doing requires us to protect ourselves from potential chemical spills and discharges of crashed vehicles and potential hypothermia in cold conditions. We do this with all volunteers, on a budget of mostly donations.”
A new member of the team, Steve Sewell, reflected on the insights gained in the first few hours of training he’s participated in: “for example, exchanging the full face mask while underwater is completely different than doing the same thing with a simple regulator in an open water recreational dive. And we train in the pool with black-out masks to replicate the environment we’ll find on the bottom of the lakes and ponds around here.” Asked how that impacted his views of the Thailand operation, he said “It really put the challenges those Thai rescuers faced into perspective for me. They had to navigate their way out of the caves through fairly long stretches of underwater passages, in very tight conditions, with only some flashlights to provide any visibility at all. I find it miraculous that they got them all out alive. I can tell you that I’m not real claustrophobic, but those stories made me sweat.”
Maintaining operational effectiveness for the Lee’s Summit Underwater Rescue team requires ongoing funding. They receive “Outside Agency” funding by Jackson County, supplement those funds with some high-value property recovery activities, and by providing water safety support for area triathlons and boating events, and are fortunate to receive both private and corporate donations. Even with these generous contributions the need for equipment such as underwater communications, SONAR, advanced technologies, new dry suits and other expensive gear requires that the team look to the community for support as well. To supplement their existing funding they have recently launched a new GoFundMe campaign to assist with the funding of a truck to haul their new customized trailer. Duhon says “our existing operations vehicle is a 35 year old modified bread truck that is on its last legs. Our volunteers can’t haul multiple 400 pound refill tanks in their trunk, plus all of the specialty gear our divers need to do be safe and effective.”
Meinershagen says “our GoFundMe campaign is hoping to raise $20,000 for a used heavy-duty truck to pull the new trailer, and if we are successful in raising anything extra, that money will all go into supporting our operations and acquiring new gear to keep this team safe.”
LSUR’s Current GoFundMe Drive, started by Steve Sewell is located at gofundme.com/ls-underwater-rescue-volunteers. You can also support the volunteer divers of the Lee’s Summit Underwater Rescue team by clicking on the “Donate” button on their website https://www.lsunderwater.org/ or follow them on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/LSURR/.
ABOUT Lee’s Summit Underwater:
The Lee’s Summit Underwater Rescue and Recovery Team (LSUR) began its cooperation with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department in 1966 after a tragic drowning in a local area lake. Several divers created the team and subsequently trained together as a team in order to conduct organized body searches in local lakes and ponds. Incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit in 1977, we have been supported entirely by gracious Individual and Corporate donations, as well as County Grant programs. Over time, LSUR has expanded its capability in searches, services, and techniques. In 1988, LSUR obtained a lease of county land across the street from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Communication’s Department, where the team built its own building for housing the most advanced dive rescue and recovery team in the metropolitan region. LSUR has been called on to testify in many criminal cases where we have recovered evidence or victims, and have been recognized by our trainers as experts in the field of underwater evidence recovery, and drowning investigations. Over our history, LSUR has even traversed the region and surrounding states to perform our services where no other subject matter experts exist. In 2016, LSUR celebrated its 50th year of service to the Kansas City Area.
Today and going forward, LSUR will continue to evolve, with the support of our local communities to continue to provide the technical expertise and skill sets that have come to many of our communities and counties aid.
LSUR’s continued operation depends on our generous donations from the community.