So you want to start or improve a public safety dive team
Part I – Start with the right mentality
by Andrea Zaferes

“The most important mission in starting or improving a team is to do what it takes to make sure team members can accomplish the one job they must do every time – go home”. Walt “Butch” Hendrick.

Drowning is the third most common cause of accidental death for adults and second for children in the U.S. Every year new public safety diving (PSD) teams are formed to find drowning victims. These teams are formed by fire, law enforcement, and EMS personnel, and sometimes by people not already in the public safety community.

Water operations are unlike any other field in public safety. If a fire department wants to start a hazmat or high angle team do they go to the local hazmat shop or climbing store? If paramedic training is needed do we take a weekend American Red Cross class? Do police officers learn to shoot at the local skeet and trap club? Of course not. Yet, most dive teams begin with training and equipment purchases at the local recreational dive store. Most PSD teams then continue to use sport procedures and equipment. Sport diving and public safety diving (PSD) have little to do with each other, and confusing them has resulted in far too many fatal consequences.

Sport divers dive when and where they want, in good weather conditions, with plenty of pre-planning. Their mission is to have fun. They do not have crying families, chiefs, and the media to contend with. Sport divers dive mid-water, in relatively clean, clear water. PSD divers are woken up at 0200 hrs in the rain, to rapidly pull a family out of a vehicle submerged in black, contaminated water. PSD divers dive on the bottom where entanglements are common place. PSD requires well-trained tenders, safety officers, and backup divers, and detailed documentation in case the scene is later determined to have been a crime scene or if a lawsuit ensues.

PSD divers often move from an entry-level sport diving course to a sport rescue diver course that is designed to teach sport divers how to save each other in high visibility mid-water. Sport rescue diver training does not address the needs of bottom dwelling, tethered, solo blackwater divers and certainly has nothing to do with conducting a PSD search operation.

For example, sport diving out-of-air procedures are irrelevant for solo-tethered-tender-directed divers. The latter should have quick-release pony bottles so if they need air they just switch to their pony and surface, unless of course they are entangled on the bottom, which is a situation requiring a specific set of well-trained procedures never addressed in sport rescue.

Sport divers use octopuses, which were created by Walt Hendrick, Sr. and Dave Woodward for shallow, high-visibility, mid-water diving. An octopus is merely a second mouthpiece coming off a single air source that can be passed off to an out-of-air buddy. What good is an octopus when a solo diver runs out of air? Having a second mouthpiece to an empty cylinder is pointless. And what happens when a backup diver passes an octopus off to an out-of-air primary diver entangled on the bottom? Now the backup cannot move around to help and is stuck to the primary diver. Octopuses have no place in public safety diving, yet sadly they are prevalent in PSD.

How many dive teams even have a contingency pony and full-size bottle on the scene set-up and ready to be brought to a low-on-air diver entrapped on the bottom? Seems so logical, yet the answer is probably less than five percent of teams. Why is this true? Because the majority of PSD training is based on sport diving procedures, equipment, and mentality.

Entanglement is the most common problem of bottom-dwelling divers. Today, while giving ice training sessions to the Anchorage F.D dive team, the first diver experienced a tangle of fishing line well wrapped around his left heel up to his hip, which is a common occurrence where people fish. Do we train for this? Sport divers are sold expensive knives that they duly wear on their legs, yet, less than one percent ever receive hands-on training in entanglement management. PSD divers, who need this training the most, are not much better. We find less than ten percent have hands-on entanglement management training.

The sport diver mentality says one knife worn on the leg with no training is sufficient, because you never really are going to need it anyway. PSD divers need the attitude that a cutting tool in trained hands can save your own or another diver’s life. Could a cutting tool be dropped in cold or blackwater? The obvious answer of yes should dictate that PSD divers wear at least two to three cutting tools. Sadly, the sport diver mentality prevails, and most PSD divers carry a single knife.

It gets worse. Divers who have worked on real or training entanglements learn that knives are inefficient for cutting such entanglements as fishing line, and can injure equipment or a diver when used in zero visibility. Paramedic shears are far more effective and safe. After having my BCD cut, my full face mask plate stabbed, and a regulator hose cut, by blacked out students during a few hundred the “save the entangled diver” drills, we made the rule of “no knives allowed to be used by the safety diver when aiding a primary diver.”

Yes, it gets worse. Besides carrying the wrong cutting tool, carrying too few cutting tools, and not training how to use them, divers typically wear them in the place farthest from their reach and on the part of their body that can become entangled as it kicks the fishing line up off the bottom – their legs. Leg knife placement is poor sport diving at best. In addition, a dropped weight belt can become caught on a leg knife, as one Pennsylvania instructor discovered when his student was found drowned on the bottom because the student’s weight belt slipped off and caught on the leg knife during the night dive of an advanced course. Cutting tools should be worn in the golden triangle chest area where they can always be reached and are the least likely to be an entanglement problem.

Look at the typical PSD diver, who happens to look like the typical sport diver. A snorkel is worn, which serves to increase entanglement risks with the added benefits of dislodging the mask and introducing more contaminated water into the diver’s mouth should the snorkel be used. Why are snorkels worn in the first place – to save air when at the surface? If that is the case, then something is really wrong with the dive procedures.

Gauges are dangling free so that they can drag along the bottom snagging weeds and fishing line, instead of being secured under the diver’s arm, through the BCD arm hole, Octopuses are also left dangling to become snagged, to scoop up mud so that they wont work when needed, and so that they will be far less reachable when needed. Would police officers allow the position of their weapons to continually change throughout the day? Why do divers allow their life support tools to dangle and continually be in different positions throughout a dive?

Consider the life saving, very basic skill of “regulator retrieval”. More than ninety percent of sport and PSD divers use the side-sweep method which only works most of the time. Getting a regulator back in one’s mouth while submerged should be important enough to be reflexively done with a procedure that works every time – namely the over-the-shoulder method, which also allows divers to turn their air on should they ever, unbelievably, enter the water with their air turned off. Our research has shown that if a diver fails at the side-sweep method then the most likely result is an uncontrolled bolt to the surface, not an attempt at the over-the-shoulder method.

So why do divers use the side-sweep method? They were taught both and then were allowed to use the seemingly easier method every time after that. Why would anyone teach two different techniques for a skill that needs to be reflexive? And then, why allow the technique that could fail, become the status quo? Even sport divers should not be taught any method other than the over-the-shoulder method. The recreational attitude of “nothing will go wrong, diving is fun,” coupled with a financial motivation to promote that attitude and to decrease training standards to increase profits, prevails in the sport diving industry. PSD teams that develop from sport diving are faced with the consequences of this sport problem that could result in injury or death.

But wait, you may say, our team was trained by a PSD instructor. Hmmm, is that really true? It may not be. A common pitfall is when a team has a recreationally certified scuba instructor (PADI, NAUI, SSI, YMCA, etc…) in the department, and because the instructor is a firefighter and trains the dive team, the instructor, by nature of association, is called a “PSD instructor” even though the instructor may have little or no PSD training. Sometimes a group of such instructors form a “PSD” certification training agency and go out and teach other teams. Now these teams believe they are receiving PSD instruction and certification.

The key is to look at what is being taught. Are they using octopuses, tether-lines with hand-loops, diver-directed diving or multiple divers on a line in low/no visibility, a knife on the leg, dangling gauges, or snorkels? If yes, then put a check in the sport column. Are the search patterns exactly documented and repeatable? If not, add a check to the sport column. Do tenders document the divers’ breathing rates every five minutes and use that information with the divers’ personal surface air consumption (SAC) rates to know fairly accurately how much air a diver has at any point during the dive in blackwater. Or, are they training teams to bring divers up every fifteen minutes for pressure checks, which disrupts search patterns and increases the risk of diver problems. Are team members even taught how to calculate diver SAC rates?

Are team members given hands-on training with specific, tested and proven procedures on how to discover and manage diver entanglement, injury, and out-of-air procedures in blackwater, or are safety divers taught a generic “go to the primary diver, figure out what the problem is, and then manage it.” Are divers given a maximum blackwater search time of 20 or 25 minutes or are they allowed to search beyond the mind’s concentration peak for 30, 40 or more minutes. Are divers allowed to surface with less than 1,000 psi in their main cylinder?

Part of the reason recreational procedures are allowed to spread throughout PSD is that there are no real accepted PSD national standards in the U.S. The National Fire Protection Agency document 1670 is very general and not all departments follow NFPA. NASAR put out a set of guidelines, but again, these are general and are not used by many departments. PSD dive teams are currently exempt from OSHA, although that may change. Various training companies have their own standards, but currently, most teams just make it up as they go.

The result is a complete lack of consistency. A team in County A may use effective solo-tethered-tender-directed procedures, with quick release pony bottles, harnesses, lines marked every five feet, hazmat tested drysuits, backup and 90%-ready divers, three non-knife cutting tools all in the golden triangle chest area, and full-face masks. County A tenders are certified and know how to read divers bubbles to know within 200 psi how much air their divers have at any point during the dive, they draw the diver’s exact movements on a profile map, and they have a specific five-factor system to accurately determine if an area can be secured or if it needs to be re-searched. Their SOP states that their maximum dive time is 25 minutes, maximum tether-line length is 125 feet, maximum depth is 60 feet, and if the current is greater than ½ knot then the dive cannot be done from shore. In the next county over, Team B dives three divers on a line, with wetsuits, right-handed octopuses, knives on their legs, lines marked every ten feet with knots, no certified tenders, standard masks, and no specific and tested contingency procedures. They bring their divers up every fifteen minutes to check their air. They have no maximum dive time, they will dive to 130 feet, they do not measure the current, and have no specific way to decide if an area is secured or needs to be re-searched. Because of the lack of nationally approved and tested standards, dive team “B” may look safe and effective until you see “A”.

The moral to this story is that if you want to start a PSD team, or improve the one you have, you need to begin by really thinking. You need to be very critical and question every thing you hear and see. Is a procedure based on proven, tested, logic or is it something learned from Al, who learned it from Joe, who probably got it from Dan, who was a sport diver who started the team fifteen years ago. Take the time to read, watch, and ask lots of questions. Your family will thank you. Safe diving always.

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