'That need to help the neighbor': Litchfield dive team works 24-7

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Mike Dayton, Ray Zagurski. Background people from Scuba Shak Padi instructors

Mike Dayton, Ray Zagurski. Background people from Scuba Shak Padi instructors

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LITCHFIELD — The call from Litchfield County Dispatch can come any time of the day or night, but when it does, resident Peter Bergamo said he and his team is always ready.

Bergamo is captain of the Region 5 Dive Team, a 6-year-old nonprofit volunteer year-round team of public safety divers who provide Litchfield County and surrounding areas with water rescue and emergency management support.

The 35-member team is supported by the Litchfield Fire Department but members spend their own money to supplement team expenses.

Bergamo recently created a fundraising campaign to raise money for the team. The campaign has raised $775 out of a goal of $5,000.

Costs for the department include the purchase of new equipment and diving suits, repair and maintenance of existing equipment, and inspection, education and certification.

The team also is seeking funds to train more cold weather divers, who have ice training. Unlike warm season, open water divers, “there is a lot more risk and danger involved in water that’s 36 degrees and under,” said Bergamo. “The regulators can freeze. The equipment can fail a lot easier.”

Region Five Dive Team divers, from left, Mark Abbenante, Peter Bergamo; tender, Marcia Makenzie

Region Five Dive Team divers, from left, Mark Abbenante, Peter Bergamo; tender, Marcia Makenzie

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“Most of our tanks right now are from 1990. All the tanks made in the ‘80s have to be replaced because they’re not qualifying for inspection anymore,” said Bergamo, who has been a member of the team for about four years.

Aside from Region Five, Bergamo wears many other volunteer hats in town — he’s a volunteer firefighter for Bantam and East Litchfield, and is on the Goshen Dive Team. His full-time job is as owner of Litchfield Hills Fitness.

Search and rescues

Saving lives is a normal part of the team’s job, said Bergamo, who has been a diver since 1984 said “has hundreds of dives” under him.

The team does approximately 10 rescues a year. The number of rescues has gone up over the last few years because of heat waves in the area, which tend attract more people to engage in water activities, according to Bergamo.

While the team gets involved in both rescues and recoveries, Region 5 is mainly a rescue team.

“We do both, but we’re a fast response team,” he said. “I have my gear in my car. It’s ready to go. The quicker we respond, the quicker we can save a life.”

Most of the time, the team is on scene within 10 minutes of getting a call. When someone is in trouble in the water, Bergamo said there is a “magic hour” — whatever happens to an individual in that first hour of their incident is the difference of life and death.

According to Bergamo, the most difficult part of a rescue is trying to stay fit, calm, and maintain focus on the task at hand.

The pandemic

Due to the pandemic, the numbers of rescues the team experienced last summer has increased, according to Bergamo.

“Last summer was horrible. It was one call after another after another,” Bergamo said. “People were getting out of the city and people who weren’t familiar with water or our waters were ending up in rivers and brooks and reservoirs.”

Each time he’s not able to rescue someone, he said he reflects back on the moment, wondering other measures could have been taken.

“You always evaluate — ‘Could you do more?’ But we always give it our all. So in that aspect, that’s how we get better — by looking back,” he said.

Every first responder has a breaking point, according to Bergamo, which is different for each person.

“I’ve heard it called pebbles in a backpack. Each pebble gets put in the pack and you just keep carrying it until you can’t,” he said.

While he said he’s never seen a team member break down, “the chiefs are really good at looking for signs. We also have access to professional help if requested. On many large calls, a review is done. One of the main objectives is to find a member that is having problems and get them help. I, personally, have had a phone call less than 24 hours after every recovery from a superior. That alone makes me feel supported by my brothers. My motivation is to find the lost victims and get them back to their family. It’s hard when that mission is not achieved.”

Despite the time and commitment the team takes out of members’ lives, Bergamo said “it’s a calling and a duty.”

“There’s nothing like being able to use a skill that you have to save somebody or to find somebody,” he said. “There’s that need to help the neighbor. You jump out of bed and you get the job done.”