Training is Key
Today’s Fire Rescue services are being tasked with more and more duties that require unique types of training, such as Haz-mat, confined space, vehicle extrication, and other specialties. Because drowning is one of the top causes of accidental death for children and adults worldwide, water is a major issue for all rescue service agencies.
Just as Fire Rescue services have numerous, growing specialties, water has so many different rescue facets that these teams also need to train for a multiple of operational capabilities. Additionally, as new equipment and techniques develop, teams need to train continuously, both within their departments and through professional trainers. Depending on your specific location, your team may need to be trained and ready to respond to any one or a multiple of the following water operations, ranging from general search and rescue/recovery to large area search, subsurface ice operations, and underwater vehicle operations and salvage.
Despite all of their technical differences and varying training requirements, equipment, and support personnel, each of these water specialties have some factors in common.
All of these specialties deal with water; as simple as that may seem, it does not always mean that rescuers have truly prepared for it. CAN EVERYONE WHO IS GOING TO BE WITHIN FIFTY FEET OF THE WATER EVEN SWIM? In any operation, never count on the fact that rescuers will not end up in the water. Hence, every person who responds to a water operation must wear a proper Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Even capable swimmers can be rendered unconscious on a scene.
A second factor that all water operations have in common is the need for strong, organized command. In that regard, water operations are not all that different from any other type of Fire or Rescue response. Command needs to assure that all the operational and technical personnel are properly trained, dressed, and deployed for the operation at hand. If they are not, command has the responsibility to call for someone who is capable of performing a proper rescue.
Bearing these two factors in mind, we will briefly examine a few aspects of rescue/recovery diving and some of its specialties to give a brief overview of the type of operations and training that a water rescue team may need to encompass.
General Rescue/Recovery Operations
Standard sport diving training is simply not enough to prepare a subsurface rescue/recovery team. Public safety diving in reality is a type of technical diving, and therefore demands highly trained, practiced personnel. Unfortunately, dive teams around the world continue to find themselves in situations that are beyond their ability. Luckily, more often than not they survive those situations with only near misses.
One of the major differences between sport diving and public safety diving is that public safety divers usually do not dive in buddy pairs. Instead, a single diver is deployed, linked to shore and a tender by a tether line. That tether line serves a three-fold purpose. First, it is a communication link to shore. Even if a diver has underwater communications, a series of line-pull signals will allow him to communicate any necessary information to his tender. Second, the tether allows a tender to direct the diver over an exact search pattern: if there is ever any slack in the tether, the tender knows that an area may have been missed, and can direct a better search of that area. Third, the tether is a direct link for a back-up diver to reach a primary diver who needs assistance. Without that link, the back-up diver may not find the primary diver in time to help.
There are numerous other permutations of tethered diving, including the use of blackwater diver-to-diver signals, hand-drawn profile maps of the area being searched, and equipment – such as harnesses, pony bottles, line deployment bags, and contingency lines – that are worthy of articles of their own. Suffice to say, these differences are mentioned here to illustrate the vast differences between sport diving and safe, technical search and rescue/recovery diving.
For diving searches, most of the operational aspects of large area search remain the same as for general rescue/recovery diving. However, divers and shore personnel must be even more thoroughly trained and drilled in order to conduct the operation more smoothly and efficiently. The key to large area search is to ensure that areas are searched thoroughly the first time, so the operation can keep moving.
At least as important as smooth operations is narrowing down the search area based on information about the area one is searching and the item being sought. As an example, let’s look at an actual case. In August of 1997, Lifeguard Systems was called to assist in search for a young man who had drowned in a lake that was about 18 kilometers long and two kilometers wide. Our first step was to research weather conditions, winds, current, the place the young man had left shore, and his possible destinations. We then combined that information to create a much smaller search area. We found the body within that area within two days.
The most noteworthy aspect of large area search is that it cannot be conducted entirely from shore. Hence, diving operations must take place from a boat or floating platform, which in turn involves a triple-anchoring technique that allows the platform to remain in the same place, but be moved by extending some anchor lines and shortening others.
New technologies are also helping large-area search. With satellite technology, GPS, and, even better, DGPS, are giving teams a way to know a more exact location, even on the water’s surface with no landmarks visible. Also, side-scan sonar, which can paint a graphic image of objects on the bottom, can search wide swaths for an object as small as a human body.
In addition to the normal complexities of rescue/recovery diving, ice operations offer both an overhead environment and extreme cold. The overhead environment itself means that a diver in trouble cannot simply make a direct ascent to the surface. Hence, her tender must know her location at all times, and both the diver and surface operations must have a rehearsed plan in case the diver needs assistance, or, worse, has her tether disconnected somehow. In the latter case, we train our divers to ascend to the bottom of the ice cap, gently inflate the BCD or drysuit, and wait in a vertical, feet-down position. That method allows the largest target to be found by a searching back-up diver who was deployed when the primary diver’s tender realized that the diver had been disconnected. If the waiting primary diver has to wait long enough that she must switch to her pony bottle, she is trained to dump her weightbelt, thereby ensuring that no matter what, she will not sink back to the bottom.
The extreme cold of ice operations presents two problems of its own. First of all, the cold can cause regulators to freeze and free-flow, which quickly results in an empty air tank. Second, immersion in the frigid water accentuates the dangers of hypothermia found in any winter operations; remember that water conducts heat away from the body 400 times faster than air does.
Quite often, ice training is conducted from good ice, or even ice conditions where we can use the ice as a solid base from which to operate. In a real operation, however, we often must deal with weak, unsupportive ice, where personnel are falling through, regulators get wet and freeze up, and one problem begins compounding another. So, once your team has learned how to ice dive, train on poor ice, where you are falling through or suddenly require a platform or small boat operations.
Even during good ice conditions, try training as if the conditions were poor. Stage from a boat (preferably rubber) near the diving operations hole. Try cutting trenches in the ice ten to twelve foot long and two and a half to three feet wide, and have your divers move from ice to water and back to ice as they approach the proposed diving operational hole.
Even for surface ice operations, divers can become an unbelievable asset. In situations where rescuers are unable to reach a victim on the surface, divers can be deployed just below the ice cap at the point where surface rescuers are falling through. With tenders and divers trained to give and follow line signals, the diver can be directed to surface in the ice hole with the victim. Using the BCD, the diver can then create positive buoyancy for the victim, allowing surface rescuers to destroy ice as needed take more time to reach the victim in order to complete the rescue operation.
If your dive team is already performing tethered diver operations, ice diving in itself is not that much more difficult to learn. However, that training must be done through professional trainers. Otherwise, if you have not trained under the ice, do not dive under the ice.
Underwater Vehicle Extrication and Salvage
Submerged vehicle operations can be one of the most dangerous situations a public safety diver can encounter. When any vehicle enters the water, it automatically creates a contaminated-water situation as petrol, antifreeze, and oils begin leaking out. Those chemicals will burn skin and eyes on contact, and can cause lipoid pneumonia if even the slightest amount of contaminated water is aspirated. Hence, divers operating on submerged vehicles must be protected by drysuits, full-face masks, and drygloves, and must be thoroughly decontaminated after leaving the water.
Like ice, submerged vehicles create an overhead environment situation. Divers should avoid entering more than an arm’s length inside a vehicle, or they severely risk entanglement and entrapment.
As they explore submerged vehicles to find victims trapped within, divers should always stay low and use extreme caution. Air-filled objects, such as soda bottles or spare tires, become deadly missiles underwater as they seek to reach the surface. I will never forget the nearly-empty ammonia bottle that nearly decapitated me as I searched a van for its occupants.
Dive teams are often called upon to remove or salvage submerged vehicles. Remember, though, that unless that job is needed to assist with a rescue or a body recovery, vehicle salvage is the job of a wrecker crew or commercial divers. If your team must remove a vehicle, be sure that they have trained and practiced using the lift bag system both on land and in water before trying it in an actual situation. If a tow truck is being used to pull the vehicle out, be sure all divers are out of the water and away from the area before removing the vehicle. Remember, heavy salvage is the job of trained, commercial divers.
As we have mentioned, all of these various subsurface specialties, and public safety diving in general, have one big requirement: they demand, absolutely, thorough training and drilling by professionals. Anything less is simply means a tremendous risk for rescuers, and no victim deserves to die because of an inadequate, unrehearsed response.
Safe diving always,
Team Lifeguard Systems