CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WMBD) — For most classes, you’re sitting in a classroom.

But when it comes to saving lives, you have to put down the books, and get some hands-on experience.

That’s where Michael Johnson, Fon Du Lac Park District’s Chief of Police, comes in.

He, alongside Marine Law Enforcement Officers Chance Barlow and Joe Troglio have kicked off a brand new organization. It’s the Fon du Lac Marine Law Enforcement Dive Team.

Made up of first responders around central Illinois, this new organization will be made up of 6-8 divers who are fully trained to respond to all kinds of situations. The team just had their first 3-day training class last weekend.

“This is an ice rescue training class that we’re teaching to police officers, fire department personnel, it can be open to paramedics. Basically any first responders,” Chief Michael Johnson said.

But before officers can get out on the ice, they have to start by learning the basics.

“We’re going through the ERDI program, the Emergency Response Dive International Certification,” Marine Law Enforcement Agent Chance Barlow said.

But then it’s time to put the books down, and the real action begins.

“They will learn how to approach that victim, put a rescue harness on them, help them on a spine-board, or whatever they have to rescue them. Then safely remove them from the water. That’s a requirement that every firefighter and officer is doing this weekend. They have to enter the water and get comfortable with it,” Barlow said.

WMBD’s Matt Sheehan joined in on the training with Barlow and Johnson. Johnson & Sheehan headed out on the ice, walking half-way then crawling the rest, before getting into the pond at Quail Meadows Golf Course in East Peoria. Wearing immersion suits, you couldn’t even feel the freezing water. But if it touches your skin or gets within your suit, that’s another story.

“We can work several hours in these and still be fairly safe, as long as we don’t get a leak and get some cold water inside,” Johnson said.

Part of the training is getting in the water and learning how to pull yourself out.

“It’s a golden hour. From the time somebody goes in, you’ve got 15 minutes to get them out before they lose the ability to rescue themselves. And you’ve got about an hour from when the incident occurred, to bring them back,” Johnson said.

“They’re learning how to safely go out on the water and either do a surface recovery or to pull somebody out of the ice,” Barlow said.

Barlow shared some quick tips for anyone who ends up getting stuck out on the ice or even falls in the water.

“Depending on the location, the winds, the temperatures, that ice will deteriorate really fast. It’s dangerous to be out on any type of surface ice at any area in this point in time,” Barlow said. “If you can, get your arms up to the edge of the ice and extend out and hang on to the ice. Unfortunately, what happens is your clothes you’re wearing will freeze to the ice and it’ll hold you. But just try to scream, but you have to calm yourself down and get the help that you can. If that’s not happening, and there’s nobody around, get yourself pulled up onto the ice, get your stomach up onto the ice and roll out. Once you roll, keep rolling until you get away from that open water and then crawl out.”

Barlow said the worst thing you can do is try to stand or stay in the water, keep kicking, and wear yourself out.

“At least get your arms up onto the ice, that’s the main thing,” Barlow said.

Barlow also said if you are the rescuer, you need to be fully prepared before heading out onto the ice.

“You’ve got to be tied off, have some ropes or something, that if you get yourself out there to attempt a rescue, that you can rescue yourself,” Barlow said. If you don’t have a safety line in place, you put yourself in a situation where you become a victim out in the water. You just have to get ahold of the victim and calm them down. Help them out of the water and roll out on the ice. Make sure you’re calling 9-1-1, you’re telling them what you have, where you’re at, and what the ice conditions are.”

Johnson said his officers have a ton of experience as first responders, and they’re ready to offer the best service to central Illinois that they can.

“We have two new officers who are both Peoria firefighters with almost 30 years experience as master divers. They’re bringing a lot to the table for us. They both just graduated from the police academy, and they’re gonna help spearhead this team,” Johnson said.

Barlow is one of these officers Johnson referred to. The Marine Law Enforcement Agent is helping train the new recruits.

“If you get in the water, one of the main things you can do is calm yourself down. You’re gonna have the shock of the initial going into the water,” Barlow said.

Chief Johnson said rescue attempts aren’t the only calls his officers will be responding to.

“It could be anything from doing a body recovery, to somebody driving a car into the river, or we’re doing an article search because somebody threw a weapon over the bridge,” Johnson said.

These rescues take place year-round, especially the summer months, while central Illinois gets really busy with recreational boaters.

“We do have more instances of people jumping off bridges, unfortunately. We do have more incidents of boating accidents where someone may have fallen off a boat, alcohol related,” Johnson said.

The goal of the program is to train as many law enforcement officials as possible and provide the best service to central Illinois as they can.

Johnson said his Department has been in marine law enforcement for over 20 years.

“We’ve always been the team that goes out and does the locate, using the sonar, and we would contact another agency to do the dive operations. But Peoria can only do so much. With our agency, we cover four counties (Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, Marshall) so we’re trying to bring a law enforcement dive team together so we can help them. If they’re tied up, we have divers available. Plus, our divers will go anywhere,” Johnson said. “We’ve been as far as Chicago to assist other agencies for dive teams.”

Over the years, the unit has grown from 1-small patrol watercraft providing basic response to one of the leading marine units in the Tri-County area, Johnson said.

“Through an inter-agency agreement with the United States Coast Guard, our agency now provides patrol coverage for the Illinois River between River Mile Markers 139.6 to 181.3. Operating several watercrafts to include our 30 foot twin engine rescue vessel, 20 foot Boston whaler and a hovercraft,” Johnson added.

Right now, the marine unit has 2-master divers. The goal is to have 6-8.

By providing the training to other agencies, the new dive team can create a revenue source for the agency to help fund equipment and training.

“Our goal is to continue to foster relations with the Peoria Fire Department, Illinois Conservation Police, East Peoria Fire Department, East Peoria Police Department, our Dispatch Centers and all other response agencies who contribute to the safety of our waterways. By working together, we can insure the safety of the citizens we serve,” Johnson said.