Crime Scene Management and the Dive Team’s Role


by Patrick S. O’Boyle:
public safety erdi divers

It’s too often that many of us on public safety dive teams as third (3rd) responders arrive well into rescue operations associated with a submerged incident. Those who are part of integrated municipal departments may not face the same issues since they are part of the first alert, and are part of the first arriving assets to a scene. The management of the “crime scene” needs to be addressed from the dive team perspective, either by the third party agency or an integrated municipal department. This scene management needs to be part of any team’s training regimen.

Without argument, many existing public safety dive teams are volunteers that serve the community very well, either as part of local volunteer fire departments, independent teams of trained public safety divers, rescue squads, or search and recovery teams. Law enforcement dive teams are a large part of the public safety dive team service, and have a strong understanding of this type of crime scene management. In recent months I have worked with sheriffs’ departments on missions and drills and they have agreed – further work is needed among dive teams of all types.

Not long ago, I was asked to critique a Dive Team Challenge hosted by a local law enforcement agency and the dive team support they receive from a third party agency.

The scenario:

A camp scene at the lake, two males, one female, a copious quantity of adult beverages, campfire, tent and outdoor gear, and a remote off-road location adjacent to hiking trails. The sun rose the following day and a group of hikers came across the body of the female in the woods. Law enforcement was called and excellent crime scene management protocols were followed. The camp site was found, with a male sleeping off the night’s consumption of alcohol, some scratches and blood noted upon his person. When detained and questioned, he admitted to killing his two camping mates, one in the woods, and the other in the lake. The local dive team was activated.

Upon arrival of the dive team, they were told to remain clear of both the campsite and the trail to the woods. I watched the boats enter the water, the sonar equipment get activated, gear being assembled, secondary gear being staged, and a full briefing with diver and tender assignments at the edge of the lake just adjacent to the campsite. No scene management was established by the dive team.

I stopped the drill and called the investigating officer and the dive team leader to the observation area. “Is anything wrong so far with this operation?” I asked. I was told by the dive team leader that EMS was called to start medical clearance. This was a good answer but not the one I was looking for (that should have been done at activation). The investigator stated he called for more LEO help. Okay, good again, but not correct. To trigger some previous training that each of these responders is required to have, I used the word HAZMAT. Okay, homerun. They immediately removed the gear, divers, staging, and created a warm zone and hot zones, logs and personnel times, separate entrance/exit areas, and a command structure was implemented.

My point is that we are part of the evidence chain. At times we may need to prompt the agencies already on scene. In my region, the Sheriff’s Department is the command agency on subsurface rescue and recovery. Local first responders arriving first may be operations, and then we set up a dive branch and dive operations. These are all typical NIMS protocols. When operating in rescue mode, these issues are different, but we operate with the Sheriff’s Department and until proven otherwise, consider it as a crime scene, or at least a potential crime scene.

In rescue mode, save the life and operate safely. Once time and conditions change, and the determination to switch to recovery mode is made, step back, consider potential crime scene applications and work with the command structure to contain the scene.

crime scene management diverSome Keys:

  • Create your own warm and hot zone depending on operations (land vs. boat).
  • Have a dive team member become your scribe, document all activity.
  • Request a LEO liaison to be with dive team leader/operations.
  • Operate under your training and protocol; you are in charge of the dive.
  • Take the ERDI Crime Scene Investigation course!

On my team, we recover the victim subsurface in an approved body bag. We also take soil and water samples using sealable laboratory 30ml vials and place them into the body bag. We have received many compliments from crime scene investigators for this little action. They are always impressed. This takes me to another point, if we can impress a crime scene investigator we can take it further.

I am currently working with ERDI Training and the North Carolina Medical Examiner on a medical examiner-approved diver course that will be reviewed in the coming weeks. My goal is to have this available to all teams and delivered by medical examiners and ERDI instructor trainers so that all the effort of our public safety dive teams will be vertically integrated into state Chief Medical Examiner’s Offices and have them influence our protocols. So far it has been received with excitement and a cooperative spirit from each of the states I have contacted. The end result of all subsurface recovery has the strong potential to be an ME case. Let us bring them into our service and work with them as partners so that they see the valuable work we do. It can only make us better teams and servants of the community.

Look for this specialty course in the very near future. I thank ERDI Training, the Medical Examiner’s Office, and Air Hogs Scuba of Garner N.C. for their guidance and assistance getting this to our public safety dive professionals, either paid or volunteer. For my goal is to make us all professionals in our service.

The first step of any dive team is to understand that crime scene management is critical. ERDI takes great effort to provide proper documentation and scene management paperwork to any dive team operating under ERDI training programs. The ERDI Crime Scene Investigation course is the first step toward learning how to secure an operational scene and maintain evidentiary security. Education is the key to operational success and any dive team can do well by partaking in this scene management program.


Patrick S. O’Boyle
APP, Paramedic, DMT, FEMA Medical Specialist, Dive Team Captain, Public Safety DM, NC Death Investigator



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