The commander of the D.C. Fire Department's fireboats sent a memo in December to Chief Theodore R. Coleman, asking for scuba diving equipment to use in underwater rescues, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
According to the documents, Fire Capt. H. Linden Cohee, the fireboats' commander, sent Coleman a memo on Dec. 18, 1986, asking for scuba equipment and saying fireboat officers could have prevented two deaths during 1986 had they had the proper gear.
Cohee has also said that the lack of scuba equipment may have prevented the rescue of three people who died in the crash of a helicopter in the Washington Channel Aug. 21. Cohee said the cost of equipping the boats would be less than $10,000.
In a separate complaint, a union official said yesterday that two members of the D.C. fireboat service cannot swim, sharply reducing their effectiveness in any river rescue operation.
Deputy Chief Ray Alfred, the department's official spokesman, said yesterday that he was not familiar with Cohee's memo. He said the department would not have an official response until today.
"I can tell you right now we're going to be looking at it," Alfred said. "We need time. We're talking money. We're talking training."
Cohee's memo was written three days after a man died when his car plunged into the water at East Potomac Park.
"I strongly feel that had we had the diving equipment on board Fireboat 1, we would in all likelihood have saved a life," Cohee said in the memo. "There were two qualified divers assigned to Fireboat 1 . . . . The temperature of the water at that time was 42 degrees. The time to recovery would have been approximately 15 minutes.
"All the elements of success were there save one -- equipment."
Also, Cohee said his staff might have been able to save Kevin Welch, a District police officer who drowned Aug. 4, 1986, in an attempt to rescue a woman who plunged into the Anacostia River at the 11th Street Bridge.
In that case, Cohee's memo said, "the city had to call in divers from Prince George's County and other jurisdictions." The District's fireboat was at the scene with qualified divers on board, Cohee said, but without proper equipment. He said eight members of his 23-member unit are qualified scuba divers.
The Fire Department operates two fireboats, the larger of which, the John H. Glenn Jr., is a 70-foot, all-weather vessel designed to fight large fires. The smaller, faster boat is the 25-foot Boston Whaler.
The police department's harbor patrol unit operates several boats, and the qualified divers are assigned to the unit. However, the boats do not routinely carry scuba gear.
On Aug. 21, Cohee said, the department's smaller fireboat arrived at the helicopter crash scene within three minutes, just after the police harbor patrol boat arrived.
Cohee said one of his officers, Pat Gibbons, saw the hovering helicopter veer out of control and hit the water. The fireboat officers were unable to rescue three people trapped in the helicopter, which crashed upside down in the water and submerged.
The police boat had to return to the pier to pick up scuba equipment. Officials said the first victim was removed from the water about 20 minutes after the crash.
The Washington Post reported last week that no area jurisdiction now patrols the water with divers and scuba gear. Cohee said that no qualified divers were aboard the smaller fireboat on Aug. 21 but that police officers could have used the Fire Department's scuba gear without having to return to the police harbor patrol office.
In addition, Cohee said that if the fireboats were equipped with scuba gear, he would require that a qualified diver be on duty at all times.
D.C. Firefighters' Association President Tom Tippitt said the department has failed to provide emergency medical training and lifesaving training for the fireboat unit, and he said two of the officers assigned to the unit cannot swim.
Alfred confirmed that two of the unit's members cannot swim, but the said that the ability to swim has not been a requirement for fireboat duty.