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Emergency Response Diving International (ERDI)
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Emergency Response Diving International

Establishing A Successful Public Safety Dive Team
By Wendell Nope

Whether you are an agency administrator attempting to establish a new PSD Team or one who has inherited a Team as a new assignment, establishing a successful Dive Team is now your “Prime Directive.” Within this article are some ideas and suggestions for making your time as Dive Team Commander a “crowning achievement” rather than a “cancer” to your career. For purposes of this article, we shall assume that the information herein is directed toward Teams that are NOT full-time Dive Teams, but rather, have another assignment as their main duties.

Administration

Utah Department of Public Safety Dive Team

There is an old saying that purports, “you can’t have good fruits from bad roots....” This is so-so true in the PSD field. To be successful, the Dive Team must be led by an even-tempered, forward-thinking, dedicated, and responsible Commander. Next, there should be an operational leader, someone who is the administrator of the hands-on activities of the Team. To augment these two individuals, it is advisable to have other technical experts, when possible, such as a Hyperbaric/Diving Doctor, legal counsel, etc. When possible, a dedicated trainer should be assigned to conduct foundation (entry-level) and also in-service training.

Teams without an in- house trainer should engage competent training and certification from a true certifying entity, not just a person who may have a measure of experience. Housekeeping matters, such as inventory lists, equipment maintenance, vehicle issues, etc. may be handled by any one of the above or may be divided up among the individual divers in order to prevent any one person from being overwhelmed with responsibilities. One word to the wise, accountability is everything when it comes to successful administration. Any person with a responsibility must be held accountable for the proper fulfilling of his/her duty... or you can just forget any chances for success. Interpret that however you wish, it is an absolute fact.

Equipment

Herein lay some of the biggest questions, debates, and arguments related to Public Safety Diving. What equipment do you need, how much of it, and who pays for it... are questions that seem to have numerous answers. Here are a couple prudent suggestions. First, initiate a task-analysis project to determine what types of incidents the Team will respond to; then identify a range of equipment that will function in those incidents; then determine the best prices for the items; then establish priorities among each of the pieces of equipment; and finally, juggle your priorities with the available budget.

Another great idea is to find established Teams with similar deployment situations as you face, then analyze what equipment they have resolved to use. There are certain absolutes, which are identified as follows.

  • 1. Dry Suits, including attached latex hoods and environmentally-sealed gloves. Public Safety Diving often occurs in waters that contain biological hazards that would harm divers, if they became exposed. A reasonable-thinking person would be stunned to know of the amount of E-Coli, F-Coli, other bacteria, and parasites - just to name a few – that may be found in standing pools of water... or water from other sources which are frequented by waterfowl.

  • 2. Full-Face Masks with voice communications. Public Safety Diving is not Recreational Diving. Typical dive masks are just not good enough. Communicating with the diver(s) is critical to their safety. Most often, the PSD’s will deploy in “Black Water” – water that has absolute zero visibility. Full-Face masks are non-negotiable, as the life of the PSD is more critical than any mission. Should the PSD become entrapped or otherwise endangered, it is critical to know immediately and also the nature of the problem.

  • 3. Redundant Air Supply. This is a completely independent source of breathing gas that the diver may resort to if his/her primary gas supply becomes unavailable while underwater. This could be from a malfunctioning regulator or even a tank failure. Another common diver saying is “there’s just as much air on the moon as there is underwater...” Having backup breathing gas in zero-visibility water may very well mean the difference between life and death for the Public Safety Diver. Redundant Air cylinders should be at least 19cf size and have comparable quality regulators as the primary gas supply. According to the results of the task-analysis, other equipment items may also be non-negotiable. For example, if extreme frigid waters are present then environmentally-sealed regulators are an absolute.

Utah Department of Public Safety Dive Team
Sgt. Wendell Nope prepares to descend and video a simulated Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) placed on a dam during a federal training exercise at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Dam in Utah.

Divers

How does a new Commander choose divers for a new Team or determine if the established divers are truly suitable for the Team s/he is now responsible for? There are really only a few guidelines to follow for determining suitability.

  • 1. Calm, steady nerves. This refers to the candidates’ fundamental personality. Hyperactive or easily-agitated, as well as individuals who tend to be indifferent or slow data-processors, tend to over-react when faced with serious underwater challenges.

  • 2. Comfort level in the water. Some individuals, by nature, just act more comfortable underwater than others. Of course, the more comfortable one is, the less tunnel-vision arises when a challenge or problem occurs. This is an especially-critical element. Although not an assessment that works for every Team, a sample comfort-level assessment may be seen at diverassessment.

  • 3. Ability to process information while task-loaded. Even when there is no unplanned problem for a PSD, she/he has to contend with the air-less condition of being underwater, the discomfort of heavy gear, the visual-deprivation stress of Black Water, the limitation of performing “by feel only,” not to mention the objective of the dive (search, rescue, recovery, auditing, etc.). If you don’t think this requires multi-tasking, just watch the subtle body language of the diver in the above video as he doffs-dons his gear in that exercise. You will see him attempt to make everything just right for his return down to the dive gear. Then, when his descent is from a different angle than his ascent, he has to re-process his orientation. All this was done with a blacked-out mask. Even though this re-processing took less than 30 seconds, the diver would swear it was much longer! Many divers would just panic at this point, which a Public Safety Diver must not do or death is imminent.

  • 4. Team player. This cannot be emphasized enough. There is no “I” in a Dive Team... it is all “We.” It will be come obvious that certain Divers are better at U/W Photography or have better buoyancy, but the Team must be a cohesive unit. Just one person who doesn’t display a teamwork attitude can be a huge detriment to the Team’s success. You need not be a diving expert to recognize a problem persona on a Dive Team.

Training

Utah Department of Public Safety Dive Team
Sgt. Mike Tueller locates a victim inside a simulated aircraft fuselage, while making his way through simulated debris and a variety of entanglement hazards. An opaque film inside his mask diminishes his visibility to almost zero.

Again, this is an area which is best dealt with after a task-analysis. One extraordinary benefit of the ERDI Diver training program is that it has already integrated all the fundamental PSD skills into its curriculum. Advanced training, such as Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Diver Response (among others) is also available. Whether it is a drowning victim rescue, a homicide weapon recovery, a complex search pattern for a submerged vehicle, an underwater HazMat situation, a person who has fallen through the ice, etc., the most-commonly employed skill-sets in Public Safety Diving are contained in the ERDI training curriculum. Of course, there are other options for training resources, but a prudent question for a new administrator to ask is, “where else can I find training that meets the fundamental needs of a Public Safety Diver AND complies with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) + National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards ...?”

This is just one of the reasons I have opted to become an ERDI Instructor.

Certification

The holder of an ERDI Public Safety Diver certification can be certain that a team of experts will follow him/her into court!

Certification is a critical feature among Dive Teams that are successful. Another common saying is “where there is no accuser, there is no crime ....” This means that as long as nobody cries foul, you can get along with any kind of certification, no matter if it is backed or not. ERDI is a true certifying entity, not just a person or group who espouses certain training technology and then issues a piece of paper that may not be back by credible professionals. One need only examine the track record of ERDI and its Technical Diving partner TDI, to recognize the wealth of knowledge, skill, credibility, and legal resource available to the ERDI Certified Public Safety Diver.

Utah Department of Public Safety Dive Team
This card and the certificate that would accompany it have extreme value in any court of law, whether the case is civil or criminal in nature.

Deployments

Deployments define a PSD Team. If the majority of deployments consist of rescue-attempts, then that is where the administrative emphasis should be. Different deployment concepts exist for a Team that does primarily recoveries. And further, Teams that experience high altitudes or frigid water need even more specialized skills for their deployments. It is incumbent upon a Dive Team Commander to see that training, certification, and Standard Operating Procedures are reasonably established to provide the Diver with knowledge, skills, tools, and guidelines suitable for the type of deployment s/he is assigned to respond to.

See the very plain language in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling entitled Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989) which deals with the accountability imposed upon a government agency and its administrators, in this regard. The entire text of this case may be reviewed in detail by the reader at the following internet link http://supreme.justia.com/us/489/378/.

That having been said, the sole purpose of Dive Teams is to deploy. It is a noble function to risk one’s life to attempt a rescue, recover criminal evidence, return a lost loved one to the family, and the like. One of the most glorious experiences I have had in my life deals with recovering a drowned child and returning her to the family for closure and a proper burial. Read the details at www.wendellnope.com/pdiving6.htm and scroll down to photos #3 and #4.

Successful deployments begin with a plan. Establish a set of deployment procedures with the new Dive Team by referring to other Teams having similar functions. This is one area where it is not prudent to “re-invent the wheel.” With established Teams, contact a competent resource such as a veteran commander of a Team with similar functions and compare notes on deployment practices. Any reasonable Dive Team leader will be more than happy to share notes with you.

Standard Operating Procedures

Everything a PSD Team does must be authorized (or constrained) by reasonable Standard Operating Procedures, a.k.a., Policy & Procedure. Failure to have such is the precursor to disaster for an administrator and his/her agency. In this era of litigation, it is unconscionable to fail to have SOP’s. Dive Teams in your area or perhaps well-known and respected Teams will be pleased to share their SOP’s with you. Use a combination of them all to establish your new Team SOP’s or update the SOP’s you find already in place.

Auditing

Auditing the skills of Dive Team members is one of the most under-used administrative practices. Auditing shows that you are exhibiting “good faith” as an administrator and are not guilty of “deliberate indifference.” Those are legal terms used to determine the liability of the Dive Team Commander (if any) when somebody cries foul. Not only that, but auditing gives the commander an accurate assessment of his/her subordinates’ skills, especially when they are not used often. For example, it will not likely be a weekly occurrence that a diver will be called upon to collect a handgun used in a shooting from a neighborhood drainage pond. This skill can be maintained or audited via a blacked-out mask in a pool. Equally unlikely but just as important, are the skills of underwater photography and videography. These skills can be maintained and audited utilizing other objects during a training session. It is the skill to photograph and video that matters, not the object being documented.

Train Like You Deploy

Last of all, this suggestion will make a tremendous difference in the knowledge and skill of your Dive Team. It is of little use to train all the time in a pristine environment and then expect the Divers to function competently in Black Water. The optimal balance is to conduct reality-based training, except when a Diver needs remedial training on a particular skill. Repetitive self-rescue drills, entanglement drills, Black Water drills, and so on, will create within your Divers a spontaneous response in a real incident that is based in long-term memory. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Best wishes with your new Team or with your new assignment as Dive Team Commander!

Utah Department of Public Safety Dive Team, Sgt. Wendell Nope
Wendell Nope works as a Sergeant with the Utah Department of Public Safety. He is an Instructor at the Utah Police Academy, as well as the Trainer for the DPS Dive Team. He is an ERDI Instructor, as well as a TDI Advanced Trimix Diver and Full Cave Diver. He maintains an educational Police Diver website at www.wendellnope.com and may be contacted at email wnope@utah.gov

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