Sport Firefighter Course

Hey, Sport!

I was thinking that if I could find the time, I would like to take a sport firefighter course, down at the local fire store. And then I might be able to take a sport confined space or haz-mat course…

After a little chuckle, we all know that the above is a bit farfetched. You cannot really go down to the local fire store and enroll in a series of fire rescue courses. We cannot go to the local confined space store or the haz-mat store or the extraction store in order to learn the trade of fire and rescue. The training, equipment, maintenance, and even just the basic aspects of fire and rescue can be overwhelming.

Why, then, do we find Fire, Police, and Rescue teams all over the country who have had a sport diving scuba course from their local sport diving store, thinking they are ready to enter the often-deadly waters of public safety diving (PSD) and underwater rescue/recovery?

Perhaps the problem is a little like the good news/bad news concepts: The good news is that all most anywhere in this country we can go down the street and learn how to sport dive and purchase sport diving equipment. Hence, we have a place to begin. The bad news is that we are public safety divers, not sport divers, and very often sport diving training and equipment are not specific to our needs. They are only a place to begin learning the basics, like learning how to drive a car not a fire engine.

Far too often, we as trainers hear that public safety divers have been trained by a sport diver rescue course. Again, such a course is one place to begin, but what did it do for you as a public safety diver? Putting things in perspective, a sport diver rescue course strictly teaches sport divers how to save sport divers in sport diving situations. Sport certified rescue divers are not taught the skills necessary for even entry-level public safety diving. Even the diver-diver rescuer skills are not necessarily appropriate. Sport rescue skills are based on divers who are on the surface or in mid-water, which means all procedures and equipment involve bringing or maintaining divers on the surface. Entanglement, on the other hand, is the number one concern of public safety divers who are typically bottom dwellers. Therefore PSD diver rescue procedures must involve saving a diver who is entangled or entrapped on the bottom.

Think about it: would we call Ulster Hose Volunteer Fire Company to assist in a fire at the World Trade Center on the 30th floor? Most likely not, yet they are a fine fire company: they simply are not trained or equipped for such an operation. So why are dive teams with only recreational training and equipment going operational? They were not given the knowledge to know better.

Is going to “public safety diver” trainers and agencies always the right answer? Unfortunately, sometimes public safety diving trainers and courses provide little more than sport techniques and equipment with a different label and different scenarios. For example, consider the following.

Bring your own wetsuit! A recent flyer for a contaminated water (haz-mat) diving course read, “Bring your own wetsuit!” Well, think about it: it is like asking a firefighter to bring an old set of coveralls to a haz-mat course. Why would we even dream of entering contaminated water with a wetsuit? Still, public safety divers do it all the time, both knowingly and unknowingly. Like land haz-mat response, there are specific drysuits, gloves, and full-face masks that totally encapsulate divers for contaminated water situations. Not every drysuit or full-face mask is contamination-capable. We would not purchase land haz-mat personal protective equipment that is not appropriately certified for the job, yet we will purchase dive gear that has no contamination research or certification at all, or, worse, in the name of rescue, will enter a contaminated water site in a wetsuit. We see diver after diver in photographs in contaminated water sites with no mask on, or wearing or even using snorkels, a direct access to contamination.

Winter adventure! Sport divers often enjoy the adventure of ice diving as a single event. The concept is to make it enjoyable with sufficient ice thickness, warm tents, and soup, and to complete the training day before the sun goes down, the temperature drops, and everyone gets too cold. For public safety divers, the real world is that ice diving is an overhead environment most often compounded by confined space tactics, since it usually has only one entrance and exit point. Ice operations usually occur because the ice is weak and someone has fallen in, so teams have to work with the worst ice conditions, at any hour, in any weather condition, and have to operate on the basis that NO ICE IS SAFE ICE. Most of the basic training protocols or standards for ice diving training offer little or no preparation for what the public safety diver is about to encounter.

There may not be an opportunity or an area to cut a second hole. Most likely, there has been little or no chance to dive the site prior to this real incident call. The egress area may have been unknowingly destroyed. And more often than not, supposed public safety ice divers do not have well-organized and practiced self-rescue plans, diving with recreational octopuses instead of quick-release pony bottle systems, and diving with a single knife instead of multiple shears and wire cutters. This is the real world, so if it anything can go wrong, we all know it will.

Vehicle Extrication How much time as a fire rescue company do you spend training on auto extrication? Of that time, how much time do you spend searching or working in and around a vehicle blindfolded, with the vehicle upside-down, without any verbal communication? Sure, you have to worry about explosions and twisting metal, but you do not usually have to worry about floating debris or spare tires that can move so fast that they can knock you out or break your neck. You do not usually worry about getting snagged when no one can see you or hear you or easily assist you. The average rescue team spends hours learning how to use extrication tools on land, but thinks nothing of jumping in the water and working around cars and trucks with little or no practice whatsoever.

Command does not necessarily understand what you learned or did not learn in your basic scuba course, nor does the public. All they know is that there is a dive team and it is made up by the strong individuals that take care of us during other tragedies or disasters. We are certified scuba divers on a dive team and therefore we must know how to rescue or recover someone or something underwater. But the reality is that public safety diving operations are no different than other fire and rescue operations, because they require proper training and preparation. We need to look closer at personal safety and continued education.

Public safety divers are, for the most part, sport-diving oriented. It is time to change, as we have done with so many other portions of the fire and rescue service in the past few years. Think and grow!

Safe diving always,

Walt Butch Hendrick
Lifeguard Systems inc.

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