Underwater Vehicle Extraction

There Are no Flags
In Underwater Vehicle Extraction

The human senses are fully stimulated when a rescuer responds to a typical auto accident. The flags are up. The visual sense sees the twisted, collapsed metal, the entrapped conscious and unconscious bodies, and the bleeding, physically injured limbs. The audible sense hears the moans and cries of pain and confusion. The sense of smell recognizes the odors of fuel. Combined instantly with the visual sense, the brain knows what needs to be done, and sets the body in motion. Our sense of touch becomes far more aware while making contact with the entrapped and injured human body or the steel of the vehicles involved. Rescuers, fire, EMS, and police all know what to do. Command knows what to do. We have all trained for this situation, and we all know our jobs. What happens, though, if a vehicle goes in the water?

When a vehicle enters the water, the passengers may or may not have physical injury. Quite often, they simply find themselves entrapped, and hence are quickly drowned. The impact of a vehicle entering the water can also be extremely violent, and sets a scene of confusion.

There is some thought that in their panic passengers roll the vehicle windows up in order to keep the water out, instead of rolling the windows down and crawling through them before the vehicle submerges. The doors will not open while the vehicle is partially submerged: because of water pressure, the victims can not open them no matter how strong they are. Additionally, many of the more modern vehicles lock automatically as the electric system short circuits. The doors may lock, but often the windows still work. To worsen the situation further, studies have proven that unless the water is very shallow (less than three to four meters), more often then not the vehicle will land upside down on the bottom, wheels up. No matter what the event, drowning is all too often the end result.

For a submerged vehicle, there are none of the usual flags to the senses when the rescuers arrive. There are none of the normal or familiar signs to cue command as to what to do or how to best utilize their man power. There are often no bubbles or even pools of fuel at the water’s surface to tell the exact location of the vehicle. Without the flags, and without proper, thorough training, rescuers lose sight of what they need to do, and how to do it.

Preparing the dive team
When practicing for any rescue situation, remember that nothing replaces professional training; this article is only an introduction to underwater extrication and vehicle work. We will not cover buses, trains, planes, or mass casualties, nor will we cover how to better train divers for extreme underwater operations.

Divers should begin training on land. Just as you would do for any other vehicle extrication, get the practice where you can, and critique and modify performance. Reality is always best: if possible, place the training vehicle on its roof as though it had flipped over when it entered the water. Allow the vehicle to remain there for at least twenty-four hours before training in order to be sure of integrity of the vehicle. (Supports are recommended.) When putting the vehicle upside-down is not possible, train with its wheels down in the normal position.

Place rescue or store-type mannequin in different positions inside the vehicles. Arbitrarily attach seat belts, and affix some belts so that they must be cut. For teams that include evidence searching in their dive duties, add small pieces of evidence in the vehicle, and require that all pieces of evidence be recovered before vehicle removal.

String the interior of the land vehicle with fishing line, string, and light wire so the divers learn how to deal with entanglements and proper cutting methods. Mannequins should be slightly enwrapped in the entanglement, too. This process should be beyond any possible reality, allowing the divers to learn how to deal with the worst case scenario.

Divers should wear full gear, except for tanks (plastic display tanks or rolled cardboard will make a good substitute), and attempt to extricate the mannequins and avoid entanglements. Unless the team normally uses underwater communication equipment, the divers may not talk. Using line pull signals is allowed.

There are numerous considerations to keep in mind as the divers train. Command may wish to deploy a back-up diver to the vehicle if the extrication involves more than one victim or requires the diver to enter the vehicle with more than an arm’s length.
They should practice staying low as they access the interior of the vehicle, since underwater even a soda bottle could be dangerous if it has air in it and is suddenly released, catching the diver in the temple. A spare tire can be deadly if it is not bolted down, especially in passenger or cargo vans, station wagons, and hatchback-type vehicles. Keep in mind that more often than not the vehicle is going to be upside-down, and any floating objects will be on the floor – now the higher portion of the vehicle. Often as you or remove the victim you will also move the dangerously buoyant objects.

In addition to keeping low, divers should learn how to move slowly around vehicles. They might also wear kevlar liners under their dive gloves, since broken bottles, glass, seat springs, and other debris can be found in vehicles, and will cut through rubber gloves and hands alike.

Safety demands that divers be tethered. However, tethered divers should never be allowed to move to the opposite side of a vehicle without going over the vehicle. They should not go around the vehicle, since the tether can often become entangled in the bumper or other portions of the vehicle. They can move from the rear or forward to a given side, but never completely around the vehicle. (Remember that for land practice, you must support the vehicle before allowing divers to practice this movement on upside-down vehicles.)

Additionally, divers should carry an attachable float or buoy in order to mark the location of the vehicle before leaving it. Otherwise, they would not be the first divers to have located a vehicle underwater, and then not been able to relocate it! When using buoys, be sure the diver attaches the buoy to a portion of the vehicle that he does not need to go near, such as the rear bumper, to keep tether lines and his diving gear from becoming entangled.

An even better technique is to have all tethers measured every five feet, with specific marking at the twenty-five foot increments. These markings, combined with a reasonably drawn profile of the dive site, will allow the shore operation to know the exact distance of the vehicle from shore and its location with in the search area. While this mapping may seem a little more difficult, it removes the possibility of entanglement with a buoy or float line. In the long run, the ability to avoid snag possibilities will usually save time, while avoiding additional snags is safer.

For both practice and real life, divers should always carry a one-meter rubber cord (bungee cord) with S-hooks on both ends in order to tie back doors on the vehicle. Securing the doors may seem like a waste of time, but there is nothing worse than wishing you had tied the door back after it has closed or jammed you or your dive gear inside the vehicle. In that situation, you must react to the problem, and then re-address the victim.

Your land exercises should be practiced until divers can confidently remove entanglements, extricate victims, and maneuver around and through a vehicle. The next step is to make a vehicle environmentally safe, and with the proper permits place it in the water. Now start the training all over again, placing mannequins in the vehicle under water, and adding wire or string for entanglements. Have divers remove the mannequins and entanglements – then have them do it again.

During practices, keep in mind that working a real submerged vehicle extrication involves still more complications. Petrol in the water is a major concern to the diver, mostly during surface time, ascent, and decent. Divers should be trained to get below the surface quickly, and out of the fuel-contaminated areas. There are liquids that can be put on the surface of the water and the divers gear that will repel some types of fuel oils. You must check with your local regulations to define whether or not you may use such detergents in your waterways, as they can be harmful to fish and other water life.

You may find that the divers become bored with these exercises rather quickly, and no longer concern themselves with entanglement difficulties or victim extraction. The next step, then, is to teach the divers to work and communicate together underwater and in blacked-out conditions. Let them take simple tools under water (not Hurst tools), and ask them to remove a door, seat, or the bonnet, and bring them to the surface. Have a separate team of two divers then replace the items on the vehicle. Since our normal senses are not able to help or cue us as they do on land, we have none of the normal flags to our senses. Hence, we have to be better trained and prepared.

Teamwork, whereby together each accomplishes more, is the key not only to learning how to deal with underwater vehicle extrication, but also how to work together better in a total underwater operation.

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