GREAT SACANDAGA LAKE — For all the moving parts involved, the operation went about as smoothly as it could have, with just a few bugs — actual insects, not technical glitches — getting in the way.
Matt Ball, a deputy with the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office, piloted his patrol boat onto the Great Sacandaga Lake, with fellow deputy Matt Gibbins operating the boat alongside him and three members of the office’s dive team — Sgt. Matt Kavanagh, and deputies Chad Marshall and Dennis Lobosco — suited up for duty as part of a joint training exercise conducted Thursday with various other law enforcement and emergency services agencies as part of the Great Sacandaga Lake Safe Lake Initiative.
In a few minutes, they reached the site of a brightly-colored ball buoy that had been anchored to a spot where underwater sonar from the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office had located sunken objects. After a diver from the New York State Police’s Underwater Recovery Team exited the water, the trio of Kavanah, Marshall and Lobosco performed final checks and entered the water, quickly disappearing completely from view save for a few trails of bubbles coming to the surface.
A few minutes later, a bright yellow spool wound its way to the surface — an indicator, Ball said, that the divers had found their target and tied a lead weight at the bottom to keep the spool in place.
The divers soon surfaced and reboarded the boat, relaying what they’d found — a sunken personal watercraft, and a dummy body. They observed the scene, recording everything they found underwater with a waterproof GoPro camera.
“Every single call we get needs to be treated as if it’s a crime scene,” said Ball, who will spend his summer patrolling the lake on his boat.
“We try to photograph everything we possibly can,” Kavanagh said.
Soon after, a second dive team from the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office pulled up, with four more divers and an investigator. After a few more minutes, they too surfaced, bringing with them the dummy body and the personal watercraft, brought to the surface with a couple of flotation devices.
Ball tied the personal watercraft to his boat and slowly towed it — and the diver keeping a hold of it in the water — back to the dock at the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District’s Sacandaga Field Office that was used as a staging area.
Job done — at least for this dress rehearsal.
Representatives from the sheriff’s offices in Saratoga, Fulton and Montgomery counties along with the State Police and the Department of Environmental Conservation spent Thursday on the lake, drilling recovery and rescue operations on the day before Memorial Day weekend — one of the lake’s busiest weekends of the year — began.
It’s an annual tradition, Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino said, and a chance for the different agencies to put the array of equipment each has as its disposal to work in unison.
“They get to know the level of skills that people have, what equipment we have,” Giardino said. “It’s a real good exercise.”
Each of the agencies involved in the exercise brought different equipment and specializations to the proceedings. There were boats of multiple shapes and sizes — including the unmistakable racket provided whenever the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office’s air boat roared across the water — along with multiple dive teams, sonar and radar equipment, Jet-Skis used to create perimeters and ferry some equipment to and from shore and a fleet of drones to survey the scene.
“Everyone does their own training, but this is good joint training,” Giardino said. “When you look at the trailers, you’ve got close to [$750,000 to $1 million] worth of equipment out here with all the boats. Every agency trains by themselves, but here we all train together.”
“Since the waterway is shared by multiple jurisdictions,” Kavanagh said, “it’s important for everybody to be on the same page.”
Thursday’s training was designed to be as realistic as possible, with Giardino crediting Environmental Conservation Officer Shane Manns for designing the training scenario, which revolved around a kayaker and a Jet-Skier being hit by a boat.
Most of those taking part in the exercise did not know the scenario they’d be facing when they headed onto the lake Thursday.
“They did not know exactly what the plan was,” Giardino said. “So, it’s realistic. It’s chaotic. Everyone’s trying to figure out what’s going on. A lot of planning exercises, you have a meeting and say, ‘OK, this is what we’re doing.’ This one, a handful of people knew what was going on, and we treated it as a real incident.”
“It’s more of a training to bring the resources together and mock the real-life scenario and the coordination between everyone,” DEC Lt. Matt Clemens said.
It’s all done in concert with the Safe Lake Initiative, a partnership between various local, county and state law enforcement and emergency management agencies, the Henry D. Ross III Memorial Fund and Sean Craig Memorial Fund, along with multiple private entities.
Kevin O’Flaherty, a member of the Safe Lake Initiative through the Watercraft Network, was impressed with Thursday’s efforts.
“The coordination,” O’Flaherty said, “is just incredible.”