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Buffalo's Underwater Recovery Team: What does it do?

Black water. Raging water. Ice-covered water.

The city's rivers and lake can be at their worst when Buffalo's Underwater Recovery Team is called into action.

On alert 24 hours a day, the team is one of the busiest special squads in the Police Department and can be called upon to investigate drownings, help with boats in distress or search for lost evidence.

"It's not for the faint at heart," said Capt. Fredric Foels of the City of Tonawanda Police Department. "Look at the conditions they're dealing with out there, and who knows what the visibility is like."

When you talk to Foels and others familiar with underwater recovery teams, you're certain to hear about the risks they face every time they enter the water.

Foels says it's not uncommon for those teams to encounter swift, dangerous conditions where the visibility is so bad, divers are required to "swim and feel."

"Often, you can't see right in front of you," he said.

Buffalo's team, known for its intense, year-round training, is made up of police officers who are certified SCUBA divers. They also train for a year or more before joining the squad.

The Buffalo Police Underwater Recovery Unit practices in the Black Rock Channel off the Bird Island Pier on Feb. 17, 2017. (John Hickey/News file photo)

The training site at the foot of West Ferry, where Buffalo Police diver Craig Lehner went missing Friday, has been used by the department for decades.

Police officials, well aware that some might question the decision to train in the Niagara River on Friday, said they go there because working in those kind of conditions keeps the team prepared for whatever emergencies arise.

"They train so when the bell rings, they're prepared," said Foels. "It's crucial to walk through real-life situations. Training is the key."

Over the years, the Underwater Recovery Team has garnered headlines for its work.

In November of 2012, squad members retrieved a man's body 
from the Niagara River at the foot of Porter Avenue and, two years earlier, located a 16-year-old boy who had drowned in a pond on Unity Island.

Just last year, after several witnesses reported seeing a car go into the Niagara River near Ontario Street, the team reported to the scene and pulled out a woman – alive – from of the car.

The Erie County Sheriff's Underwater Recovery Team members get ready for an ice dive exercise at Spaulding Lake in Clarence on Feb. 13, 2015. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Foels said the squads are a common and essential part of any police department with a waterfront to patrol.

Bordered by the Niagara River, Erie Canal and Ellicott Creek, the City of Tonawanda formed its underwater recovery team in 1963 and has seen it grow to more than a dozen members, many of them civilians with experience and expertise in diving.

"Our guys train in the water just like Buffalo does," he said.

In emphasizing the importance of training, Foels noted that some of his team members were in Boston, Mass. last month as part a training exercise for their new sonar boat.

"A month later," he said, "it's out on that river helping with the search."

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