Soldier, Firefighter, and Public Safety Diver: A Personal Journey

By: Italino “Tony” Pietrantonio

Let me ask you a question, why do you do what you do? For some of you, this question might require some thought and consideration before answering. What exactly do I mean? Scuba diving, for instance, is something I do because it brings peace and relaxation. Exercise also keeps me feeling good, but neither answer is what I mean. The answer for me is straight forward and simple really. I do what I do because I believe in serving something greater than myself and answering a call to serve my community. I am not just talking about where I live or my neighbors and friends, but broader terms. Terms that include my country, my geographic location, the groups I belong to, and all the people I meet who I feel represent my personal community. My desire to serve, and the service that follows, is the story of how I went from soldier to firefighter, to public safety diver.

Service to our great nation was a tradition

Service to our great nation was a tradition in my family from my grandfather fighting in two wars with the Marine Corps to my father in the Army through Desert Storm. I learned from both these great men about service and sacrifice. It only felt right when I enlisted in the Army in 1995 and decided to spend the next 22 years going wherever I was called, providing aid to those in need and deploying overseas multiple times since 2003. I did so without fail, often missing birthdays, anniversaries, and many of the events that occur as children grow. Sacrifice came with the territory if you will, and I, along with my family, understood this fact. However, I always knew one-day retirement would come. Despite this recognition, until March 2009 I had not considered where my desire to serve would lead me. My next opportunity to serve came that month when I found myself helping search for a lost child alongside my local volunteer fire department. I joined the fire department without any knowledge of what it would ask of me. I was used to going wherever the Army wanted and doing whatever training was necessary, but giving up more of my time seemed strange yet I was eager to do it to provide aid to my neighbors in their worst times.

What did I do to become a firefighter?

Volunteering was the first step, but that alone does not make you a firefighter. North Carolina, like many other states, follows the guidelines of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) which sets an industry standard for certification as a firefighter. I have never believed in doing anything half way so when I discovered there were two levels of certification I looked at how to best accomplish this goal of becoming certified in the shortest time possible. As I was still in the Army, that was not an easy task and it still took several years. Daytime classes were not an option so I had to find night classes within a reasonable distance, or I had to take weekend classes often spending time away from home and family to achieve my certifications. Dedication to service and knowing that I was helping others in their worst times drove me to make a commitment. The positive side to all this is that North Carolina pays for all the classes through the community college system when you are affiliated with a public safety organization. However, I still had to sacrifice my time and energy between work, college, deployments, family time, and emergency responses to become certified as a Level II Firefighter in 2014. All my sacrifices were made to help those in need and thankfully my family understood and supported me which made my efforts more manageable.

I mentioned earlier how I enjoyed diving, but I never knew there was such a thing as public safety diving.

I discovered this concept in 2008 when I finally decided to become officially certified to scuba dive. My instructor was an active member of the dive team I currently serve. I found myself intrigued that there was a way to combine something I enjoyed doing as a passion for my desire to serve, giving something to the people and families in need during dark times. In early 2009, I joined the Underwater Search and Recovery Dive Team again not truly understanding what I was involving myself in or what it required of me. Again, I found myself trying to become proficient through training and classes often doing so with even less time for other things. I dedicated myself to be present at every training event and call whenever I was not away with the Army. Training was scheduled for one day every month and calls come at any moment. Unlike the fire classes, the public safety dive classes, and diving, in general, were not paid for by the Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM). Here is where I provided dollars out of my own pocket to become better and more proficient for my own sake, for the sake of my teammates and their families, and for the families of those we serve. I set aside money to pay for courses and planned to accomplish the courses whenever the opportunity was presented. This action led to me diving mostly between January and March for certifications when I was home. The water was cold, but the sense of accomplishment and service was warming to my soul. All feelings aside for the moment, I felt as if I was missing something in my knowledge or skills regarding public safety diving.

As I discovered more about public safety diving, I learned that recreational dive training was not enough for the job of the team.

This led me to ask my Captain questions which in turn caused him to introduce me to Emergency Response Diving International’s courses. I began considering the public safety courses and became aware of the lack of my knowledge. I had been partaking in recreational scuba training up to this point. Dry suit and full face mask operations were the first two courses I could take while training with the team, but that is where it stopped until recently when the ERDI courses began running through the community college system. This has led me to working and training to earn my technician level diver and Dive Supervisor certifications. Public safety diving is not just for rescue operations as I once thought, but for recovery operations which may include vehicle and evidence recovery as well. Regardless of what is being recovered, the whole of the operation gives something to the people of the community.

My life has been a story of serving something greater, of answering a call, of giving myself to bring comfort and aid to those in need. Everything in life we choose to do often brings a sacrifice in one form or another. I have dedicated time, energy, and money all in pursuit of serving, often losing time with family due to training or responding to incidents. I do not regret any of these sacrifices as I believe my service and the service of so many others brings something to the victims of the tragedies to which we respond daily. Service something greater is why I do what I do. What drives you to do the things you do?

Follow up:

During his time drafting this storyline, Tony was unaware that the decision had already been made to offer him a Lieutenant position on his home dive team. This decision was made following a long period of hard work, dedication, training, and training support for new team members. Congratulations to him for his highly deserved promotion.

About the author:

Soldier, Firefighter, and Public Safety Diver: A Personal Journey
Italino “Tony” Pietrantonio
Divemaster – Air Hogs Scuba, Clayton, NC
Captain – Flat Branch Fire Department, Bunnlevel, NC
Lieutenant/ERD Supervisor – Harnett County Underwater Search & Recovery Dive Team, Angier, NC

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