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 depth2 PS Divers

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

Serving My Country & Community

by Darren Pace:
PS Divers deploy from helicopterVeterans returning from the nation’s longest military deployment in Afghanistan and other Middle East countries face an uncertain transition to civilian life. More than 21.4 million vets increased the country’s workforce in 2013, and competition for jobs becomes intense for these returning heroes. Demobilization promises continued increases of armed services personnel who will need civilian job placement. Public service jobs are often the first choice of men and women who have placed their lives in jeopardy, and public safety diving (PSD) is among the most popular careers for vets who are used to following strict chains of command, performing exciting physical tasks and ensuring security and safety of civilian and military communities.

Emergency Response Diving International (ERDI) courses provide training for people who are interested in continuing to serve public safety while earning competitive salaries. Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies employ diving personnel to conduct underwater inspections, recover bodies and evidence and map underwater areas for engineering, scientific and industrial purposes. True heroes from the armed services are increasingly choosing these careers to support their country and communities by putting their skills to work as police divers, rescue staff and members of emergency response teams.

PSD Public Safety Divers Handle Many Critical Emergency Services

Divers collect evidence, recover bodies, rescue people, interdict contraband and inspect coastal areas. The work is often done in challenging waters, hazardous conditions and limited time-frames, so the parallels with combat are significant. Divers recover weapons, vehicles and people, triangulate search areas, maintain chains of custody, photograph evidence underwater and arrange to bring critical materials to the surface.

Assignments and Positions for Divers

Armed services men and women make ideal candidates for public safety diving careers because they are physically fit, used to obeying orders, highly organized and experienced in working as part of a team. Job seekers can find positions as team leaders, primary divers, secondary divers and tenders who provide logistical help for underwater dive teams, researchers and evidence technicians in law enforcement. Typical public safety diving jobs include the following duties:

  • Collect evidence and recover bodies in criminal cases and disaster scenarios.
  • Map underwater areas for engineers, scientists and community organizations.
  • Provide security for state visits, concerts and celebrations.
  • Rescue people in maritime accidents.
  • Deal with underwater threats such as bombs, oil and gas leaks and hazardous chemicals.
  • Strengthen borders by inspecting river, lake and ocean coastlines.

Obstacles and Opportunities for Vets

Increased competition for jobs among the pool of returning vets complicates their employment outlook, and many younger job seekers have spent years honing their skills at interviewing, resume writing and networking, which puts qualified vets at a disadvantage. Vets often find that they must pass new tests and plow through licensing hurdles to get civilian jobs even when their experience has left them eminently qualified. Other challenges of adjusting to civilian life include:

  • Getting treatment for PTSD and disabilities
  • Paying for certification and training while needing to generate an income quickly
  • Using military-style skills in corporate environments
  • Transitioning from using the most advanced technology to operating with commercial equipment

Emergency Response Diving International (ERDI) training provides unique opportunities for armed services personnel who are used to working in highly structured chain-of-command situations with the most advanced equipment. Physically fit and often experienced in diving operations in hostile or hazardous situations, vets enjoy advantages when competing for jobs in public service, police and fire departments, emergency response teams and federal law enforcement agencies.

Experienced armed services men and women can qualify for these exciting careers in only a few months by getting certified through ERDI training. Many government incentives provide assistance for armed services people to transition to civilian life. These programs include disability assistance, training incentives and financing, the GI Bill and employer tax credits.

Veterans might face challenges when looking for civilian careers, but thousands of returning service men and women are exploring the benefits of continuing in public service as police divers, public safety divers and other law-enforcement and security-specialist occupations. Unlike their counterparts in the civilian workforce, vets who end up underwater don’t owe the bank but can bank on using their armed services skills in rewarding and lucrative careers.

I’m a Tender, You’re a Tender, Wouldn’t You Like To Be a Tender Too?

By Mark Phillips

imtenderA family of 3 is murdered. The killer eludes the police and manages to get rid of the weapon used by tossing it off of a bridge. A suspect is eventually apprehended and he confesses to the crime and describes where the weapon is…

A severely depressed mother of newborn twins decides she can no longer cope with her life and the stresses of motherhood. She drives to a local lake and parks in front of the boat ramp. Summing up what determination she has left, she takes a number of pills and swallows them down with a quart of vodka. When she begins to feel the effects of the combination of chemicals, she puts her car in gear and floors the accelerator. The car floats 75 yards or so and sinks to the bottom with her and her two children still strapped into their car seats in the back seat.

A carjacker is spotted by local police and they begin a high speed pursuit in the middle of the night. The carjacker loses control of the vehicle and slams into a hundred year old oak tree. He survives the impact and manages to run into the darkness. The police are right behind him and begin a foot chase. He runs into a park pond and attempts to swim away from pursuit. The police watch him without giving chase. He makes it about half way before he tires and realizes he cannot make it to the far shore – or any shore. As he screams for help one of the police officers begins stripping off his gear with the intention of attempting a rescue but before he even gets his gear off, the suspect vanishes underwater.

What do these three events have in common?

Someone is going to go underwater and make a recovery.

When the dive team is called out, the team functions like a machine: every move choreographed and efficient while working out the details of the event and planning the dive. When it begins, it is not the diver or even the scene officer who is the conductor of the dive, it is the Line Tender.

The functions on scene and job requirements may include scene management, Incident Command, Recorder, or more. It is possible to run a dive mission with 4 team members but they must be very good at what they do and capable of working at ANY position required.

There must be at least 4 team members on site to function within acceptable safety margins for a typical dive team. The 4 team members will be identified as Primary Diver, Backup Diver, Safety Diver and Line Tender. These 4 team members must be able and CAPABLE divers – capable of diving on this mission.

Once a location is determined, a pattern agreed upon and the backup diver is ready, the primary diver and line tender can begin their search. The other team member(s) can continue to dress or gather information etc.

The line tender maintains contact with the diver at all times via either a tethered line or umbilical. Through this contact the line tender is able to communicate with the diver and direct him efficiently through the water even if the diver is in zero visibility. The diver has little to do other than maintain a taut line and execute the instructions sent by the line tender while performing his search.

But like any conductor, the line tender is only as good as the people working with him. Someone has to manage the other aspects of the dive. Each team member functions in his assigned position. Each position supports another and together they form a consolidated group centered on the line tender.

Take any single part out of the equation and the mission will likely fail. While it is possible to consolidate jobs, the line tender has many responsibilities including keeping the diver safe, defining the search area, managing the search pattern, recognizing breathing patterns of the diver and knowing when something has changed. The line tender must manage the line tethered to the diver and work to prevent entanglements and note their locations. If an emergency erupts, it is the line tender that makes the announcement and launches the backup diver.

But without proper training, repetition and experience the position of line tender seems to sometimes get less attention in training or importance than it should. Every team member should be trained and capable of functioning at each position during a dive mission. The diver gets a lot of attention because it is the diver who is the most at risk. But it is the line tender that manages the diver, runs the pattern and is tasked with keeping the diver as safe as possible.

When was the last time your team focused on the line tender position as the primary training topic? When was the last time you were a line tender? If the diver gives you four tugs, do you know what it means? If the line goes slack – what do you do? If the diver finds what he is looking for, then what? Practice as a team and practice each position.

Before the dive, at a minimum the tender should:

  1. Assist the diver don equipment
  2. Record beginning pressure and verify all equipment is functioning properly.
  3. Establish a minimum PSI
  4. Establish maximum depth
  5. Establish maximum bottom time.
  6. Review line signals
  7. Review procedure for diver in distress.
  8. Review procedure for “Object Found”.

Teamwork, cooperation and communication make for a successful dive mission.

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