Recovering Evidence at Depth

by Dr. Thomas W. Powell:2 PS Divers recovering evidence

Evidence recovery is a primary function for almost all public safety dive teams in the United States. Team members often hope to be available to perform rescues or bring closure to families, but in truth, dive teams are frequently called in to look for evidence that may assist in a legal case. In many of these cases, law enforcement personnel have exhausted all other options and require a sub-surface team to search where others cannot. Essentially, a dive teams’ skills in regards to sub-surface evidence collection may be responsible for solving a case, or conversely, letting it slip through a detectives fingers.

Law enforcement officers are trained to handle evidence, and follow chain-of-evidence custody procedures to ensure any recovered items are handled in a manner that may allow those items to be admissible in a court room. The reality is that many dive teams are not made up of law enforcement personnel. In recent years, Emergency Response Diving International (ERDI) has made an effort to develop classes designed to better train public safety divers to follow chain-of-evidence protocols, and ensure proper evidence collection procedures. These efforts are apparent within courses such as the Underwater Crime Scene Investigation program. The objective of these types of courses is to train any public safety diver to document and handle evidence in a manner that follows standards required by law enforcement personnel and/or crime scene investigators.

Evidence collection is a process that can be time consuming and task heavy. First, team leaders and tenders must monitor dive times, gas consumption, and diver safety. Divers must be prepared to find, mark, and document any item. The location of an item must be mapped and documented, and any evidentiary photos or videos must be recorded. These actions take time, and can cause a diver to expend gas and energy. These levels of expenditure can create dangerous situations, which further demand attention from leadership and support personnel in regards to monitoring the safety of any sub-surface team member.

Deep diving brings complications into the process of evidence collection and recovery. Deeper depths and the possibility of more dangerous environments further reduce dive times. Similarly, gas may be consumed at a higher rate and physical exertion may increase due to mental distress or the potential effects of deeper water. Dive team leaders must plan and train for scenarios such as this, especially if the dive team is willing to take on any mission regarding evidence collection at deeper depths.

Dive team operating procedures must be developed for different types of missions at various depths. Essentially, if a diver consumes gas at such a rate that a 20 minute dive at 25 feet allows for enough remaining gas to return to the surface, deal with any minor foreseeable issues, and undergo decontamination, that same diver must be restricted to a shorter dive at deeper depths to account for increased gas consumption. The team must also plan for back-up or secondary divers to be prepared to complete any tasks not completed by the initial diver(s). If an item must be recovered that requires a heavy-lift capability, or lift bags, the team must also plan for the extra equipment, set-up time, and controlled actions to ensure essential evidence is not destroyed in the recovery process. These actions and processes must be streamlined.

Evidence collection is a process that can be tedious, but can also provide information that otherwise would not be available. Dive teams must take the time to understand the evidence collection process, and then practice this process until actions become fluid and methodical. In many cases, one might want to involve local law enforcement crime scene investigators in training operations. Personnel of this type may even be invited to participate in an awareness-level ERDI class to better understand how a dive team performs actions underwater. Finally, teams must also recognize where problems can occur and plan out emergency scenarios. No evidence is worth the life of a diver. If a team develops standards, practices those standards, and follows the evidentiary guidelines maintained by law enforcement departments, sub-surface evidence collection can be a valuable capability maintained by any public safety diving unit.

PS Divers at depth 2 PS Divers

-Dr. Thomas Powell – Owner/Instructor Trainer at Air Hogs Scuba in Garner, NC

Veteran’s Passion Re-ignited by PS Diving

by Jerry L. Davis, US Army (Retired):
3 ERDI PS Divers

I joined the United States Navy in June of 1990. I learned to dive around the time I turned 20 years old, and I dove consistently for seven years. At that time, I considered myself a decent diver. In December of 1997 I left the Navy and joined the North Carolina National Guard, and that is where I finished a 22 year career in the military. I completed multiple combat tours during my time in service, including three tours in Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While in the service, I performed duties as a Hospital Corpsman, Air Traffic Controller and as a Military Police Officer. From December 1997 until the summer of 2010, I did not do any diving.

To complicate things, on April 6, 2008, I was injured in Baghdad, Iraq. While coming to the aid of fallen soldiers injured during an indirect fire attack on our Forward Observation Base, a mortar round landed approximately ten feet away from me. I was thrown into a concrete wall and suffered several injuries. For me, the hardest after-effect to overcome was PTSD.

Upon returning home, I ran into several problems. The first problem was the constant nightmares of what happened. Second, were the aches and pains (that I was able to overcome with time). Third, I worked in a mental hospital with children. This was a major issue because I was trying to take care of people with psychological problems, and I had my own, with which I did not know how to cope. For years, I had considered myself a man’s man. I had jumped out of airplanes at 30,000 feet and dove in oceans around the world. But now I was having to deal with problems I had never faced. I didn’t have a job, and I didn’t have any hobbies to fall back on. The question was, what do I do now?

In the summer of 2010, my son and daughter both decided they wanted to scuba dive. So I took them to a local dive shop and enrolled them in a basic scuba course. We did a few wreck dives off the coast of North Carolina that summer, and my son decided he wanted to continue diving. I contacted my local county Search and Rescue Dive Team, and got the information required to join. My son and I then started volunteering with the county dive team. During that time, I was introduced to the guys at Air Hogs SCUBA. They have a dive shop that seems to concentrate on public safety diving. Now don’t get me wrong, they teach lessons to the public for recreational diving too, but that was not what I was looking for.

As previously stated, I started diving in the Navy. Then for a couple of years, I dove as a recreational diver. It was not until I got into public safety diving that I found a real passion for what I was doing. Why is this particular dive center and PS diving so important to me? Well you see, I am a veteran, and with this role comes possible benefits for individuals in a position such as mine. Thomas Powell, one of the shop owners, told me about a program called Vocational Rehab. This is a benefit available to veterans that for whatever reason cannot return to their previous job after leaving the service. As I was a medic assigned to a MP Company in the middle of Baghdad, I was subjected to things which made it difficult for me to return to the medical field after I retired; trust me, I tried.

But why scuba diving? What makes diving easy for some people to do, when in reality, it is one of the most dangerous sports in the world? Let’s face it, in the open water class everyone learns all the things that can go wrong, and why it is so important to follow procedures. And the further someone advances in the dive program, the more dangerous it becomes. So again I ask, why scuba diving?

After my injury, I was bombarded with stress, but when I was in the water, I found that everything became peaceful. Yes, there are certain dangers that come with diving, but to me it is a place to lose yourself. Underwater, a diver has to relax and pace his or herself. Do not rush, or you will over exert yourself and deplete your air too quickly. This type of scenario can obviously shorten your dive, so you have relax. Also, even though a diver’s buddy is only a few feet away, you are basically by yourself, and not listening to someone consistently talking about how awful their week has been. Out of the water, this has also helped me slow my life down a bit. I don’t get as stressed out as much as I used to, and I am able to think faster because I am working with a different part of my brain. What I mean is, I don’t think the way I used to think. I find myself relaxing more.

ERDI PS Diver prepping gear So how have I been able to turn a tragedy into something great? I applied for Vocational Rehabilitation through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and was approved for scuba diving. I have started my training as a Public Safety Dive Instructor, but I have a long way to go. So far, I have made it through the Master Diver course. Currently, I am working on specialty courses and Dive Master. By the end of 2015, I plan to have my instructor certifications with SDI and ERDI, and start teaching other veterans and public safety dive teams in my area. I have found a new passion for diving. More than likely, I would have been like most other divers; taken a basic class, done a few dives, and stopped diving. But due to the fact that I found diving relaxing, and I found a dive shop that was willing to work with an old veteran, I was able to work through my PTSD injury and therefore ended up with a more relaxing life.

I would like to thank the guys at Air Hogs SCUBA, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and International Training for all the hard work everyone has done to help me accomplish my goals. Too often, the public hears about negative statistics associated with veterans returning from combat. I have had to overcome a lot, and I am now trying create a new statistic for those who have had similar problems. If this helps one person, then I have succeeded in my quest.

Divers Recovering Evidence in Confined Spaces


An Emergency Response Diver has documented the location of a simulated child victim in the artificial aircraft and now prepares to make the recovery. Notice the simulated “debris.”

“Confined Spaces” is the term assigned by the U.S. federal government and also commercial/military diving entities for what would commonly be known in the Technical Diving community as the “Overhead Environment.”

A common definition of Confined Space is any site or environment in which there is primarily only one entry/exit point and two divers may not pass through side-by-side.  Some entities also consider mission-oriented Ice Diving as Confined Space Diving.

While the technical diving community experiences Confined Space Diving mainly in Advanced Wreck or Cave  Diving – and only for exploration – Emergency Response Divers may be called upon to recover bodies or collect evidence in this unique overhead environment.  Of course, no Emergency Response Diver should attempt a Confined Space Dive without first having been trained and certified in this unique task.  That is the topic of another article and I will also not delve into the variety of training courses associated with Confined Space Diving.

The most well-known incident in our time involving Confined Space evidence recoveries is the cruise ship Costa Concordia off the Italian coast.  Numerous Emergency Response Divers from multiple jurisdictions penetrated the ship in search of possible trapped survivors and to recover drowning victims.  Confined Space diving, for the most part, is not conducted on such a grandiose scale as the Costa Concordia.  Most often, Emergency Response Divers are called upon to penetrate submerged aircraft, school buses, other types of vehicles, or various types of underwater structures.  These penetrations may be attempted rescues, body recoveries, or evidence collection that is crucial enough to risk such a unique and complex dive.  This now reveals another difference between Technical Divers (penetrating wrecks or caves) and the Emergency Response Diver on a Confined Space Dive.  The Wreck or Cave Diver should not be mission-oriented, but an Emergency Response Diver is almost always mission-oriented.

Now let’s address the issue of actually making penetration dives to recover evidence.  First, it would be an extraordinary circumstance that would justify the risk of a Confined Space Dive to collect evidence.  The value of the evidence would need to be so critical, that the risky elements of the dive would be have to overwhelmed by the  need to collect it in its pristine state.  For example, if a small airplane or an automobile becomes submerged, it would normally just be lifted to the surface by some means and then investigated topside.  Yet, the Emergency Response Diver is an appendage of the criminal investigator, who may feel a compelling need to collect evidence from the confined space site while it is in its pristine condition.  There might be suspected foul play in the case of a homicide or it could be a suspected terrorist incident.  Then the Emergency Response Diver may be given the charge to make a penetration dive.  When a Confined Space dive to collect evidence is decided upon, the Diver should have a clear idea of what particular target he or she is assigned to document or retrieve.

The bottom line is … the rules of recovering evidence are the same, no matter what the environment.  So, a photograph documenting the position of a key in an ignition, or the angle of a throttle in a boat cabin, or a body’s position in a riverbank undercut, nonetheless still need to be clear and sharp.  Likewise, a video of an object or person in a truck cab needs to be carefully shot, so the viewer can clearly perceive what he or she is seeing.  Similarly, documenting a body’s original condition in the confined space is much more beneficial to investigators and litigants than trying to imagine the scene according to testimony of the Diver.  Such evidence is used to investigate the incident and then later for courtroom purposes.

It is in the courtroom setting, however, that the integrity of the collected evidence will receive its greatest scrutiny.  The skill involved with the evidence collection can make the difference between evidence allowed as an “Exhibit” or being excluded from the case entirely.

Now for the skills and procedures; let’s begin at the surface.  There will still be a Tender at the surface, if circumstances permit.  That person will still perform the function as normally done.  Additionally, there will be an underwater Tender positioned just outside the point where the penetration is made.

That Tender will monitor the Diver and control the line such that the Diver can enter the confined space with the least possibility of getting entangled in his/her own safety line.  Both the entry point Tender and the Diver should be aware of the target being sought, whether it is to be photo/video documented or a physical recovery is to be made.  Finally, the Diver must exhibit superior buoyancy and maneuvering skills.  The Frog Kick, Reverse Kick, and Helicopter Turns are optimal propulsion techniques in confined spaces, or perhaps Pull & Glide* may be possible.  A major factor will be if the Diver has photo or video equipment in his/her hands, which diminishes the possibility for Pull & Glide or holding position by grasping an object.  Regardless, a horizontal trim will almost always be desirable.  Regardless of propulsion and trim, the primary objective will be to maneuver safely without disturbing silt or debris and maintain as much visibility as possible for movement and also photo/video purposes.

Physical evidence may be collected in the typical fashion: small items in plastic boxes or baggies, larger items in plastic boxes or similar containers, and even bigger objects may need to be placed in large PVC tubes with end-caps.  Collecting evidence is collecting evidence, whether in a confined space or not.

The next challenge for the Confined Space Diver is to exit safely. He or she may have the photo/video equipment to deal with, or even an object(s) of collected evidence.  Again, superior buoyancy and propulsion skills are highly desired.  The entry point Tender will retrieve the tended line carefully to diminish the possibility of the Diver becoming entangled in the line.  Here’s an important point:  the Diver who collects an object of evidence should keep it in his/her possession all the way to the surface – unless it creates an unsafe situation for the Diver.  This aids with the “chain of custody” issues that will surely arise in any subsequent litigation.  When the Diver surfaces, he or she may then turn it over to the appropriate Evidence Technician for processing.

Lastly, any personnel who anticipate engaging in this unique aspect of Emergency Response Diving must – absolutely must – seek competent and qualified training before deploying.  The overhead environment is unforgiving.  One of my past instructors advised me: “… never forget, every time you penetrate an overhead environment, it will try to kill you ….”

As you seek competent and qualified training for this function, you will discover it is not widespread.  As might be expected, ERDI has competent and reliable training available for Emergency Response Divers who might anticipate facing the confined space challenge.  This is a situation, however, that is not conducive to waiting until the need exists, and then goes and get the training.  If a reasonable possibility exists in your future that you may be tasked with a Confined Space Dive, be proactive and seek Confined Space Diver training in advance … you never know when the phone call may come of a school bus in the river or a submerged plane with VIP’s or a submerged vehicle with confidential documents inside.  Colleagues, best wishes to you all and be careful out there.

* Pull & Glide is a Cave Diving propulsion technique in which the Diver uses hand-holds at opportune points to pull him/herself along and glide to the next possible hand-hold.

Wendell Nope is an Emergency Response Diver Instructor in Utah.  He is also a TDI Advanced Trimix Diver and Full Cave Diver.  He has been involved with over 40 drowning victim recoveries.  He is also a member of the TDI/SDI/ERDI Training Advisory Pannel.  His favorite pastime is exploring underwater caves in Utah.  He may be contacted at

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