Kootenai County’s only dive rescue team was called to action twice last week - even though it doesn’t officially exist.
First, a truck careened into Fernan Lake, then another dropped into Hayden Lake.
In both cases, Kootenai County sheriff’s officials knew someone could be drowning. So they called out the dive team, disbanded now for more than a month over a wage dispute.
But “I couldn’t morally turn it down,” said Sgt. Brad Maskell, one of the deputies who quit the team but still responded to Friday’s call for help.
Sheriff’s deputies resigned from the dive rescue, SWAT and hostage negotiations teams in late August as a protest over what they said were low wages and poor benefits.
In the month since, these special teams have not been put back together. That’s expected to change this week.
The Sheriff’s Department plans to restart the teams by the end of this week, Capt. Ben Wolfinger said.
Until then, “We will take care of business as necessary,” he said.
Sheriff’s deputies are paid less than Coeur d’Alene police and Spokane County sheriff’s officers.
Deputies resigned from the special teams hoping to pressure county commissioners into giving them $450,000 total in raises.
But after several days of picketing and haggling, the commissioners would give no more than $260,000. Deputies had little choice but to accept their offer.
Although the teams have not officially been restored, the Sheriff’s Department has been accepting applications from officers who want to start the teams again, Wolfinger said.
About 20 applications have been submitted, many of them from officers who were on the teams before, he said. Some officers have not reapplied to the teams because of the wage dispute; some haven’t reapplied because of burnout, Wolfinger said.
As part of the wage deal, officers will get an extra $25 a week for being on a special team.
Sgt. Maskell is not sure whether he’ll reapply for the dive team but has reapplied to the hostage negotiation team.
“It gives me the potential to alter the outcome of a real serious situation,” he said Monday.
Despite the uncertain future of the special teams, Maskell said the deputies are trying not to let it affect the public.
He and other divers were ready to help with drowning victims on Friday even without an official dive team. As it turned out, no one was drowning, and the divers were called off.
Still, “We’re not going to let the public down,” Maskell said.