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Benton County to restructure dive team

By Tom Sissom

This article was published August 13, 2017 at 1:07 a.m.

Dive team

According to information from Benton County’s Department of Emergency Management, the county’s dive team has responded to five incidents in 2017.

• Jan. 1 — 2:01 p.m.: Rocky Branch Park – 20181 Park Road, vehicle recovery

• Feb. 10 — 2:34 p.m.: Saddle Shop & U.S. 412 in Springdale (assist Washington County), subject in the water

• March 3 — 12:04 p.m.: 18601 Vaughn Road (assist Washington County), male in the water

• April 3 — 3:56 p.m.: Canal and Summit – stolen vehicle in the water

• July 7 — 4:46 p.m.: War Eagle Bridge incident

Source: Staff report

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."

NW News on 08/13/2017

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