Fire Chief James Galbraith Jr. strongly defends the actions taken in New Milford by him and his Water Witch Hose Co. No. 2 volunteers at the scene of a June 26 drowning in Candlewood Lake.

A guest at Millstone Beach the day Ursula Lerse, 85, drowned thinks the volunteer fire department personnel did not deploy into the water rapidly enough.

The guest, Laura Kuskey of Portland, sent a critical e-mail to New Milford Mayor Pat Murphy, Fire Marshal Karen Facey, Police Chief Colin McCormack, other town officials and The Greater New Milford Spectrum.

In it, Ms. Kuskey claims emergency responders asked routine questions while residents of the beach community who were on the beach at the time were the ones actually in the water attempting a rescue.

"To our relief, volunteer fire department vehicles started to arrive within 10 minutes of our 911 call. We expected them to run into the water... but incredulously, they did not even remove their shoes or leave the sand," Ms. Kuskey wrote in an e-mail regarding the incident.

Fire Chief Galbraith was startled Tuesday to hear the claims.

He said Ms. Kuskey's "facts are way off" and noted the volunteer fire company is "not a dive team."

"I was the first arriving on the scene and was there within six minutes of the call," Chief Galbraith said. "An EMS arrived moments before me.

"I asked who was missing and was told an 85-year-old woman," the fire chief related. "I asked where she went down, and no one knew. I was facing a swimming area some 400 feet by 400 feet."

Chief Galbraith said that, as chief and first responder, he could not enter the water himself, since he had to be available to direct emergency personnel when they arrived.

He said he started trying to get people out of the water.

"I didn't need another person going down, and there were about 50 people on the edge of the beach or in the water at that time," the fire chief said. "More personnel were on the scene within seconds."

A resident of the lake community said Millstone neighbor Mark Lacey is the one who found Ms. Lerse, and Ms. Kuskey said "beachgoers" pulled her from the weeds and brought her to shore.

"I'd been looking in the water for about 10 minutes," Mr. Lacey said Wednesday, "then I came upon Mrs. Lerse.

"Me and my buddies were treading water over her to keep her from floating away," he related. "I reached down and freed her from the seaweed and started to lift her out.

"I yelled to the shore to get the kids off the beach," Mr. Lacey said. "I lifted her up and handed her to two firefighters who were waist deep in the water from shore at that point."

Mr. Galbraith confirmed that "bystanders" located the elderly woman and said it was two members of the fire department, Assistant Chief Jeff Emmons and firefighter Ryan Delaney -- an EMS and first responder -- who brought Ms. Lerse in.

"I think this woman (Ms. Kuskey) didn't realize that my personnel are volunteers and not in uniforms," Chief Galbraith said. "I was getting people out of the water. As people were coming in, Ms. Lerse was found.

"I dispatched Jeff and Ryan," he said. "When they got to the site, she was wrapped in seaweed. They freed her in two and a half minutes, brought her to shore, and performed CPR."

The New Milford Police Department report prepared by Investigating Officer Chad Martineau states firefighters and paramedics were in the water when officers arrived.

"Firefighters were able to locate the female party in about six to eight feet of water, approximately 20 feet from shore," the report reads.

Ms. Lerse was transported to New Milford Hospital, where she was pronounced dead, the report reads.

New Milford Police Lt. James Duda is a trained diver as well as an investigator. He said Tuesday "search under water is extremely difficult.

"From a rescue standpoint, it is important to find out if the person is actually in the water and where in the water they are," Lt. Duda explained.

"It's an awfully big lake," he noted. "Boats (from nearby Lynn Deming Park) and a dive team (from Newtown) were being brought out."

It has been a summer of many drownings, as five have occurred in the Greater New Milford area in the last few weeks.

William Donovan, 37, of Sandy Hook, lost his life in Lake Lillinonah in Brookfield Monday.

Juan Lopez, 23, of Jamaica, N.Y., and Maria Sanchez Montoya, a 16-year-old from Mahopac, N.Y., drowned in two separate incidents in June in the Housatonic River near Bull's Bridge in Kent.

Marian Mikolajczyk, 57, of New Milford, and Ursula Lerse, 85, of New York City, drowned in Lake Candlewood in the last two weeks.

State Fire Administrator Jeff Morrissette at the Connecticut Fire Academy in Windsor Locks said Chief Galbraith's response to Ms. Lerse's drowning appears to have followed established procedure.

"You have to set up an incident command system on arrival," Mr. Morrissette said. "You don't want to jeopardize rescuers' lives, and you have to get a handle on the situation instantaneously.

"He (Chief Galbraith) may have been putting personnel in charge of various operations as they arrived," he added.

Mr. Morrissette said emergency responders work in a team, and responders' whereabouts have to be monitored.

"Civilians have to be kept safe, and things have to be kept organized," Mr. Morrissette said.

Mayor Murphy was unavailable for comment on the matter.