by Darrell Adams:
hazmat PSD diver
Public safety diving (PSD) by nature is a high risk occupation full of varying conditions that can lead to problematic situations. Hazard risk assessments are a vital part of a PSD job especially when it comes to pre-planning, equipment section/purchasing, site surveys, post diving decontamination of divers and equipment and diver/surface support personnel medical monitoring. With all the challenges a PSD team is likely to encounter, wrapping your head around all these possibilities can be overwhelming as ERD Supervisor, as well as, viewed with concerns of liability as pertaining to diver safety and fiscal responsibility to the community to which we serve. It comes to no one’s surprise who has been involved with public safety diving for any amount of time that all waters have the potential to contain hazardous ingredients that can and may pose a threat to a public safety diver and surface support personnel. The warning statement in Steven Barsky’s book Diving in “High Risk Environments” is pretty clear:

“ Every hazard varies with concentration, exposure time, equipment compatibility, and other chemicals that may have altered the physical make-up of the diving equipment at some earlier date. If there is the slightest doubt regarding the hazard level, the diver must not dive. If you make a mistake during a dive in a high-risk environment you may be seriously injured or killed.”

A lot of times we get focused on the personal protective equipment that keeps the diver encapsulated in hopes that the diver has reduced exposure to the materials they may come in contact with and we tend to forget about the other support ensemble and ancillary equipment that is also exposed to the same environments. This equipment can lead to an exposure of said materials to other persons via cross contamination or secondary contamination. This is the process by which bacteria, other microorganisms, toxins and chemicals are unintentionally transferred from one substance or object to another, with harmful effect. This contamination in PSD environments concerning the ensemble generally occurs when equipment is not decontaminated or is inadequately decontaminated before dive equipment is place back into service after exposure. This can have far-reaching consequences to persons who are totally unaware of the exposure until signs and symptoms manifest. Persons that can be affected are other department members, patients, and/or family members when equipment is taken back home.

Let’s take a closer look

Let’s take a closer look at one piece of the diving ensemble used by public safety divers – the Buoyancy Compensator Device (BCD). We find as we walk into different dive lockers the type of BCD used varies immensely in style (Horse collar, Jacket, Back inflation, Harness only), by manufacturer and construction materials. Sadly some dive teams fall victim to the local dive shop (LDS) that has no knowledge of public safety diving when seeking expertise in selection of public safety diving equipment. With that said, there are many LDS that have stepped up to educate themselves and have become more informed on this small niche market so they can support public safety agencies within their community. Another anomaly seeming to occur more and more is networking among different shops together to support this market as to training and equipment.

A polarized topic sometimes among dive teams and public safety diving professionals can be the style of BCD that should be used. Arguments have been made in support of and against horse collars, jacket, and back inflation as to the pros and cons pertaining to diver position on surface and below surface, lift capacity, tethering options, weighting options and options for attachment of ancillary equipment. You may have a better chance solving a debate at a NASCAR event on whether a Ford, Chevy or Dodge is better than settling the high valued opinions in this arena.

So, let’s attempt to look at this a little differently – as it pertains to diving in high risk environments that have the potential for contamination. What are the BCD options available to a public safety dive team as it pertains to construction materials and ability to decontaminate said exposed BCDs. In taking a little time to research some of the options available we have to remember that some contaminate exposures may warrant disposal of the BCD as a viable option and a team has to consider cost recovery as an option in these situations. Some scuba equipment manufacturers have designed, developed and have produced a few products to market that may be of particular interest to public safety dive teams. Below are a few of the products I have been able to discover and is no way an endorsement of said products.

So let’s take a look at a few:

  1. Ocean Management Systems (OMS) Chemically Resistant IQ Pack made with a chemically resistant urethane coated polyester fabric accompanied with a 45 lb. and 60 lb. wing option, the outer shell is made of 1000 denier nylon fabric backed with polyurethane (PU) chemically resistant coating. This thicker PU coating helps prevent abrasion & increases puncture resistance and an inner bladder made of 200 denier nylon fabric. Tank mount can be via plate with single cylinder adapter or bolted doubles.
  2. Oxycheq MACH V Chemical Resistant/Hazmat Wing made with fuel bladder material designed for resistance to chemicals, fuels and blood borne pathogens. Tank mount can be via plate with bolted doubles or with Oxycheq HazMat Pro-Series Cam Strap a single cylinder adapter made of urethane impregnated/coated webbing and stainless steel components.
  3. Aqua Lung Brotula Public Safety jacket style BC made from Armoguard material that resists bacterial growth and is abrasion resistant. The bladder is a single cell design which will not trap contaminates between an outer liner and an inner bladder. It has a removable backpack pad to aid in cleaning, is weight integrated, and made with stainless steel components.
  4. Apex Single Cylinder Wings made with Armoguard material that resists bacterial growth and is abrasion resistant. These are available in 30 lb. and 40 lb. single cylinder wing options. These wings mate up to Apeks WTX collection of harnesses, plates and accessories.
  5. Hollis Enviro-Pro jacket style BC made of contaminated water resistant, antimicrobial and antibacterial material. The webbing is polyurethane (PU) chemically resistant coating. They have added Molle Strap System to aid in attachment of accessory equipment, pockets or weight systems. Advertised information states that it has been tested in jet fuel, gasoline, diesel and MEK without delamination or fabric separation.
  6. XS Scuba Black Ox commercial grade harness with a back wing that has 25 lbs. of lift and a vinyl coated, 11 gauge, 316 stainless steel backplate. It has weight integration and it’s also ready for use with twin cylinders.

There may be other BCD manufacturers with other products made for diving in waters with contaminates. I would ask that if any are known to you please share in the Comments section below so that others may learn of their existence. The various designs of BCDs can complicate decon measures with all the nooks and crannies contaminates can linger in. BCDs that can be easily accessed and/or disassembled can make the job of decon a little easier and therefore should be a consideration for a dive team that is in the section process for new or replacement BCDs. All of the fore mentioned BCDs provide a measure to aid in cleaning of various contaminates by their design so they may be decontaminated and possibly reused therefore reducing budget strains a team may face. The wing, stainless steel plate and harness with stainless steel components still remains a favorite among some hazmat divers because the wing and harness can be replaced while the stainless steel components can be cleaned and reused and therefore a total replacement is not needed when some parts cannot be cleaned. As with any endeavor in public safety diving proper education is critical. An article written by Don Heres “The Dirtiest Job” is an excellent bathroom read to enjoy at some point. The ERDI Diving in Contaminated Water Ops classes offered by ERDI provide an excellent foundation for those seeking additional training. The industry as a whole is becoming aware of the hazards public safety divers face so also worth a few moments of your time is the “ERDI Public Safety Diving Health Project” article. And lastly, “The Most Contaminated Dive: Recovering Human Remains” by Bo Tibbetts.


Darrell Adams
SDI/TDI/ERDI Instructor Trainer with Air Hogs Scuba in Garner, NC, Captain with the Harnett County Underwater Search & Recovery Dive Team and technical rescue instructor for NC Fire and Rescue Commission.