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In 2023, Grand Forks-based water operations team responded to six calls for service

Jan. 12—GRAND FORKS — During a winter that's been uncharacteristically warm, the Northeast Regional Water Operations Team commander advises area residents to be particularly cautious around frozen bodies of water.

"It's certainly still too soon to bring vehicles out onto the ice," Sgt. Thomas Inocencio told the Herald in late December. "I don't feel like there's any 'safe' ice."

Throughout late December and into early January, rescue calls were reported throughout the broader region due to people falling through ice or being stranded when it cracks. These instances aren't necessarily because the ice isn't thick enough but, instead, are often a result of strong winds and other environmental factors, Inocencio said.

"Our team has just been waiting for that ice rescue call-out," he said. "We haven't had anything for our area, but all of our neighbors seem to be getting those calls right now."

During more conducive conditions, Inocencio advises people to bring life jackets and ice picks with them. Ice picks can be worn on life jackets and, if someone falls through the ice, the tool can be used to pull themselves out.

"Go back the same way that you fell in," he said. "That's generally the most stable ice, up until where it (was) compromised."

The NRWOT, a subdivision of the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Office, was originally established to serve the county. It eventually expanded and now assists myriad government agencies with incidents such as drownings, evidence and property recoveries.

"Not all of them are emergencies," Inocencio said. "Some of them are just requests for mutual aid."

That aid includes annual inspections, equipment repairs and boat patrol.

The NRWOT responded to six calls for service in 2023. One was for pump inspections, one was to recover a stolen boat, two were drowning recoveries and two were property recoveries.

There were seven calls for service in 2022; more than half were emergencies. Anywhere between two and 10 calls is expected each year, Inocencio said.

"We've gone an entire season without a call, and we've had six in six weeks," he said. "It's just very unpredictable."

Inocencio joined the team as a search and rescue diver in 2007 and took over as commander within a few years. Outside of required certifications, the team gathers to train two days every month. Since calls for service are so unpredictable, training allows divers to keep their skills honed at all times.

Divers do pool training at the UND Hyslop Sports Center throughout the winter, blacking out their masks to prepare for the Red River's zero-visibility conditions, which get even worse when divers are weighted to the bottom and stir up silt, Inocencio said.

Divers also train to remove equipment while attached to their air tank, and to clear their mask if it gets pulled off and obstructed by something in the water.

"There's so much debris in our river," Inocencio said. "We need to train the rescue/recovery divers to be able to search without using vision."

This is made possible largely due to sonar technology and metal detectors.

"For a robbery incident, we were in a creek, and we had information that the evidence was dumped in," Inocencio said. "We were able to find that with metal detectors — both the firearm and ammunition."

This technology has also allowed the NRWOT to recover safes stolen during burglaries. Another key asset the team utilizes are the lines strung between divers and tenders. Tenders can guide divers but, also, an intercom system runs through the lines that allows them to communicate.

Much of the river's debris is property that was swept up during floods, or pieces of old railroad bridges, Inocencio said. Much of, however, consists of items people throw in the river simply to dispose of them — appliances, vehicles and tires, for instance.

The NRWOT's work extends above water, too. The team assists North Dakota Game and Fish with boat patrols, particularly during the summer months. Failure to use navigation lights and life jacket violations are the most common issues, Inocencio said.

This is representative of an issue Inocencio has seen across all ages — people failing to understand how dangerous water can be.

"I think people underestimate what moving water is capable of doing," Inocencio said. "We see a lot of that in flood seasons, where people (think), 'I can drive my car through that,' 'I can walk through that,' and just underestimate the power that the water has when they're going through it."