If you ever find yourself in a situation involving explosives, remember to stay calm and end the dive in a safe fashion. Report the hazard to the authorities with as much of a location and description as possible.
Various organizations that operate on local, state, and even federal levels, establish rules and regulations that may be applicable to a group taking on public safety diving operations. These regulations may involve equipment service, decontamination protocols, operational standards, team structure, and even the types of operations that a team may perform.
So which is more important? You have to decide for yourself. Getting all of the training in the world will not help an individual who simply cannot perform the tasks under stress and does not have their head in the game.
What does it take to be a member of a dive team? I get that question quite often from individuals looking to go further in diving or seeking to find some way to be more involved within their communities.
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.
If you dive in contaminated water, and most public safety divers will, then you must be aware of the procedures to be followed for decontamination, i.e., the cleaning of the diver and his gear following a dive.
by Dr. Thomas Powell:
Scuba diving is a sport in which a person can always grow and learn. Anyone who has looked at the list of available classes out there can understand that the sky is the limit when it comes to scuba education. Similarly, there exist multiple types of diving around which a diver can focus education, skill progression, and experience. The reality of the various educational pathways is that they all have the potential to build upon one another.
Public Safety Diving is a type of diving based upon the training divers receive along a pathway. First, public safety divers are trained as open water scuba divers. From that point, they may venture directly into the public safety realm or move on to learn more about technical or recreational skill sets. Like any other subject, increased education and experience often leads toward an improved level of overall performance. Essentially, the more a diver gets wet, and the more that diver tries to learn, the better he or she may have the potential to become as a public safety diver.
Public safety diving is one of the most dangerous realms within scuba diving. Divers often enter the water not knowing bottom terrain, currents may be present, and the visibility may be nil. Similarly, the technical diving realm is one in which divers work to better understand physiology, gas switches, safety precautions, and bailout procedures. Many of these activities are practiced without a mask while maintaining neutral buoyancy. Each of these subjects has a direct correlation to public safety diving. Imagine that a diver is in zero visibility, stuck in an entanglement hazard, and low on air. Technical training can better prepare that public safety diver to handle gas switches and emergency procedures while blind.
Similarly, technical divers tend to focus on streamlining equipment, exposure protection, moving items for convenient placement, neutral buoyancy, launching buoys and bags, and equipment redundancy. Again, each of these actions can also be found within public safety diving. First, public safety divers often carry lots of equipment and wear bulky garments. This equipment must be streamlined to prevent entanglement issues and moved around as needed for easy access in zero visibility. Second, public safety divers often spend time on the bottom doing hand searches for missing items. The problem with settling on the bottom is that the diver may accidentally move, cover, bury, or miss an item. The diver may also further “muck up” the environment for secondary searches. Finally, public safety divers often carry lots of redundant items for safety. Many of these items may be marker buoys or even lift bags.
Technical training may be a perfect baseline for any public safety diver. Technical training can teach a diver to perform tasks while close to the bottom but maintaining neutral buoyancy, and move excess items around on the body in a fashion that helps streamline equipment and reduce the effect on diver trim. Essentially, technical training may allow a public safety diver to better understand how to carry equipment, use equipment, reduce any effect on bottom terrain, and avoid the development of foreseeable problems. Every Technical Diving International class also teaches divers to launch buoys and bags. Every public safety diver must be proficient at launching marker buoys and working with lift bags. Again, this is technical training that can help any public safety diver become more proficient at his or her trade.
In regard to overhead environments, technical training may also include cave training. Cave training teaches divers how to be safe and proficient in overhead environments when visibility may change in a quick fashion. Cave divers learn to lay lines that can be followed back to an exit while working in a confined space and as a team. Again, each of these actions is something valuable to a public safety diver. Almost any environment may be considered an overhead environment for a public safety diver. If the diver cannot see, he or she may not know what is overhead or if there is an obstruction between the diver and the surface. Training to lay lines and understand how to properly backtrack can help a public safety diver remain safe in an unknown environment. Similarly, a proper education on laying lines can help a diver or dive team return to a known location in an efficient fashion, mark specific positions, and do so while maintaining a tight continuous line with minimal extraneous hazard developments. Finally, cave divers are trained to deal with tight spaces. Imagine a public safety diver entering a wrecked school bus in an effort to perform a recovery. That diver must be able to act and react in a proficient fashion with minimal space to move. This is something that cave classes teach.
Technical training is something that can help any public safety diver become more proficient at necessary skill sets. The current problem is that many public safety divers begin public safety training and do not have the personal time or resources to take on technical programs. As excess or secondary training opportunities, technical classes should be considered by public safety dive teams to help provide growth and development opportunities for divers. Education and time in the water is something that can help any diver. The first big step is to inquire about training opportunities and to decide for yourself how it can help you or your team.
– Dr. Thomas Powell
Owner/Instructor Trainer – Air Hogs Scuba, Garner, NC
by Steven M. Barsky:
“They mostly come at night. Mostly…”
The character “Newt (Rebecca)” in the film Aliens, talking about the aliens that attack and make humans their hosts to grow additional aliens.
Of all the diving performed by professional and commercial divers, black water diving has to be the most challenging on a purely psychological basis. It’s not that it is particularly technically difficult, but it’s the type of diving that gives most people the creeps if you can get them in an honest discussion.
In truly black water, everything must be done by feel. It’s virtually impossible to read a gauge that is not backlit, and you may not locate the dead body you’re searching for until you literally run into it. Not a happy experience.
At our most basic level, most children experience some fear of the dark during childhood. The boogeyman under the bed and the monster hiding in the closet are issues almost every parent knows well. As adults we outgrow these worries, but most people are aware that predators (both human and four legged) hunt in the dark and this issue is one that most people push into the back of their minds. The predator you can’t see is the one that evokes the most worry, even when an attack is unlikely. Psychologists refer to fear of the dark as “nyctophobia.”
Given a choice, most divers would prefer to dive in clear water with unlimited visibility. Unfortunately, especially for the public safety diver, these types of dives are rarely, if ever, encountered. Limited visibility, for example a field of view of one to two feet, is something that most of us can cope with easily. True black water, where the visibility is zero, presents a much greater series of issues.
In a black water dive, there are many real risks that are of much greater concern than the boogeyman. The first question you should be asking, prior to any dive in black water or poor visibility, is why is the water dirty? There’s a very good chance that if the water is not clear, it’s probably polluted.
Other risks that are common during black water dives include the possibility of entanglement, cuts to the hands and body, the possibility of unknowingly swimming into some type of enclosure, and difficulty dealing with out of air emergencies. During a black water dive, all of these dangers are real and it’s possible to encounter all of them during a single dive.
Diving in black water requires special equipment. Some of the items you will need include a full-face mask with communications (or a diving helmet), a tether (or umbilical), gloves, side cutters or other tool capable of cutting wire, and a knife.
The full-face mask with communications is vital because you need a way to call for help if you are entangled or have encountered some other type of difficulty. In addition, if you are diving in biologically or other minimally contaminated water, the full-face mask will help to protect your eyes, nose, and mouth from contaminants. Of course, in contaminated water you will need a dry suit and dry gloves, too.
Tethered scuba is an acceptable way to dive with scuba in black water, but it does have its limitations. The chief limitation with open circuit scuba is a finite air supply. The tether can incorporate a communications wire and this may be very desirable in places where wireless communications does not work well. In a best case scenario, the diver is wearing a helmet with an umbilical from the surface. Whatever type of specialized life support gear you use must be mastered before you venture into a black water diving scenario.
Gloves are especially important in black water, not only to protect you from the cold or pollutants, but also to protect the hands from possible cuts due to debris that may be located on the bottom. In harbors or marinas, you may encounter broken glass, barbed wire, razor sharp metal, and other similar items. A crashed small aircraft will likely be broken into numerous razor sharp pieces of metal with cables and wires waiting to snag the diver.
Side cutters or other tools that are capable of cutting wire are essential for diving in black water. You simply cannot cut wire such as fishing leader or similar materials with most diving knives.
You need a very sharp knife, sharper than most ordinary diving knives, for diving in black water. You absolutely must be able to cut your way out of any potential entanglement.
Training is Key
Training for diving in black water starts with complete familiarization with any specialized gear you select for your dive. If you cannot operate your equipment and perform all the necessary skills to handle an emergency under optimal conditions, you certainly won’t be able to perform these tasks in black water. In addition, you must test any cutting gear you have to ensure that it is sharp and that you can cut wire easily.
Black water training typically starts in a swimming pool with the diver’s mask being blacked out. You need to practice ALL of the skills you may need to be called upon to perform, including, but not limited to:
- Ability to handle all of your equipment
- Using a side cutter or other cutting tool to cut wire and remove entanglement from self and another diver
- Using a knife to remove entanglement from self and another diver
- Ability to rescue another diver, i.e, towing the diver underwater, through or around obstacles
- Dealing with out of air emergencies
- Conducting search patterns
All of these skills must mastered before moving on to the next step, which is practicing these skills in open water under conditions where there is some visibility. The diver playing the diver being rescue should not have his masked blacked out so he can observe the rescuer to make sure he is performing the skills correctly.
Ultimately, all divers on your team should practice these skills under true black water conditions until they have developed both comfort and proficiency. Hovering in black water is nearly an impossible skill, but when you’re diving with tethered scuba or an umbilical, this is a non-issue.
Taking photos or video of an underwater crime scene is pretty much an impossible task in black water. Many years ago, the commercial diving company, Oceaneering, developed a black water photography system, consisting of a camera with a plexiglass box filled with fresh water, through which objects could be photographed. Obviously, this system only worked well with flat objects. People have also experimented with constructing underwater “tents” out of vinyl and using alum to attempt to settle out particulate matter, but to my knowledge, none of these techniques worked particularly well.
Environments where black water may be encountered include just about any location where you might be called to dive. If you dive inside major harbors, there may be decent visibility to start your dive, but as soon as you work on the bottom you may experience zero visibility conditions.
As with all diving, the keys are to have the right equipment, maintenance for your equipment, realistic training, and plenty of practice to maintain proficiency. Failure to ensure that each of these requirements are met can lead a dive team to failure, or even the death of team members.
Steven M. Barsky is a former commercial diver, TDI instructor, diving consultant, underwater photographer and author. He retired to Utah in 2014 and spends most of his days reloading, shooting archery, target shooting, hunting and hiking in the mountains nearby.
All photos copyright Steven M. Barsky. All rights reserved.
Photo #1 © Barsky
There is a big difference between diving in limited visibility conditions and diving in black water.
Photo #2 © Barsky
If you’re going to dive in black water, a full-face mask with communications (or a diving helmet) is essential.
Photo #3 © Barsky
Some type of cutting tool is essential for dealing with wire that may cause entanglement.
Photo #4 © Barsky
If your dives take place inside harbors, you may frequently encounter black water.
by Steve Smock:
Just like your family car utilizes technology that was born on the racetrack for top race car teams; available for Public Safety Dive Teams (PSD) is technology that was developed for the aerospace industry, military, scientific community and commercial diving. Depending on the mission, PSD teams routinely adopt dive techniques from all types of diving disciplines. So it only seems reasonable to adopt some of the equipment these professional divers use.
Here are three ways of many, to use technology that has its roots in other maritime industries, to increase the safety and effectiveness of your dive team when it comes to managing diver air consumption. This technology is available, appropriate and cost effective for most public safety dive teams.
1. Keep them on the surface:
Seems simple enough, kind of hard to have an out-of-air emergency if you never get in the water in the first place. So, if the operation does not warrant the immediate deployment of a diver, why not consider using SONAR? Sonar has been around since the beginning of WWI to assist in the detection of submarines. Today not only navies, but also scientists, engineers and archaeologists use sonar technology to assist them in their operations. They rely on sonar technology to provide protection, increased productivity, effectiveness and cost efficiency. These professionals would not be able to, or even consider doing a mission, research project, or construction job without this invaluable tool. Neither should the professional PSD teams.
PSD teams can achieve the same benefits as their professional counterparts by using this same technology. Using sonar to limit dive search times, consistently find targets, visually monitor divers, and provide an additional security measure equals a safer, more productive and effective dive team. With this comes the added benefit of being cost efficient, which we know is something that can repay itself in the form of additional equipment, personnel and training.
Sonar should be looked at as a piece of gear that assists the diver, not takes the place of. One of the many advantages of sonar is it doesn’t require air to work. In fact most sonar won’t work well for very long in an air environment. Without worrying about air consumption you can run sonar for hours, record, verify search coverage and document multiple targets with recordings and GPS for later reference. Technology of sonar systems has advanced to where within a couple of training sessions, the average first responder who doesn’t make it a career working in this field, can deploy and achieve a workable image of the bottom. Most manufacturers have built products and software with the average PSD team in mind. As with the race car analogy, they have taken the technology and met the requirements that it be “drivable” for the average PSD team; meaning, it is simple enough to remember the basics, quickly deployable, portable and most importantly, works. Using sonar demonstrates to the public and management a degree of sophistication and professionalism while most importantly decreasing or even eliminating the chance of an out-of-air emergency.
2. Give them unlimited air:
Okay, so now the sonar has done its job, you have possible or verified targets and it’s time to splash divers. So why not give them unlimited air? The best thing about using surface supply air is: as long as you have full scuba tanks on the surface, your diver will have air at depth. Surface supply systems for PSD teams have been around since the early 70’s. They are portable, require a minimum amount of training (ERDI has a Interspero SSA course) and are extremely reliable. The equipment is proven and professional, it is the same gear being used in the demanding commercial dive profession. In addition, surface supply systems give you a strength rated tending line, camera, reliable two-way voice communications, redundant air systems and a harness to pull a diver out in case of an emergency.
In traditional SCUBA the diver really has two jobs, monitor his equipment to ensure it continues to deliver air and perform the task he was sent in to do. Depending on the skill and experience of the diver, the job of diving his equipment can sometimes overtake the focus of what his primary job is. With surface supply, the diver is free to focus on his primary task. He has a complete support team on the surface that is helping him dive. They are monitoring his air consumption, air supply, emergency air supply and depth. The support team can tell by listening to the diver’s respiratory rate if he/she is working too hard, has anxiety, is panicking or some other medical condition. The diver can hear and speak clearly to support personnel, receive further instructions, be advised to support another diver, and provide a live video feed. Further, the helmet, combined with a dry suit, is the best protection against contaminated water and head trauma.
If the purchase of a helmet is not possible or you need additional capabilities, a surface supply set up can be used with a full face mask for just about all the same advantages including air consumption. PSD teams may also want to consider the use of a buoyancy compensator with this system. This is a debate among some in the industry but many teams have used it with great success.
Regardless of how you piece together the components of the surface supply system, with training and minimal maintenance this dive mode will offer your team one of the safest ways to conduct a public safety dive operation. There are PSD teams which have an understanding that surface supply will be used as the primary dive mode unless it is impractical or infeasible to use.
3. Give them the most efficient breathing rig:
Sometimes you have to get in and do it the old school way and just dive it. But why not dive it with new school technology. Rebreather technology has been improving since Henry Fleuss first invented a commercially acceptable rebreather in 1878. Since then manufacturers have continually developed safer rigs and training agencies have and are continually improving training programs and standards. The public safety diver can take advantage of what technical divers have known for years. With this technology the diver can have hours versus minutes of air availability. With the use of mixed gas, divers can go deeper, stay for longer periods of time and have shorter surface intervals over open circuit diving. Numerous articles are written about the pros and cons of rebreathers and types of rebreathers. You will have to decide which one, if any, is right for your team. However, one way of minimizing the cons is to look at the simplest rig to operate; a mechanical, semi-closed system. There are rigs in this category that offer up to a 10 to 1 ratio of air consumption vs. open circuit. Two of these rigs can take the place of up to 15 tanks. An example of this is: during a recent dive we had four divers and two semi-closed rigs. The first two divers did a 130-foot dive for about 30 minutes. After surfacing, the other two divers donned the rigs and dove the same profile. After surfacing, there was enough air for a third dive at the same depth and time, all using the same tank. For operating in small boats, that is quite a bit of welcomed room.
Our Team is fortunate enough to possess systems in each of these categories. I have purposely left out the names of the manufacturers. Our opinion is that we have purchased the best systems on the market, but it can be a bit like picking Chevy or Ford, Cowboys or Redskins. Anyone who has been to a dive trade show or flipped through a dive catalog knows each manufacturer believes they have a better mousetrap, and indeed they should believe that, they are selling divers equipment they depend on to keep them alive in a harsh environment. Fortunately for you and your team, you would have to look long and hard to find a piece of gear that is inherently flawed and poses a liability.
The best thing is to research the product by talking with other agencies that have the equipment, visit with the manufacturer or at least a rep, “test drive” the gear and evaluate the product with your team’s budget, mission requirements and existing equipment integration in mind. Once you decide and purchase a system, stick with that system. Train on it, know all the pros and cons, develop a relationship with the manufacturer or retailer for continued support and build your capabilities around the equipment. Mixing and matching dive components usually just creates confusion and leads to nothing more than a customized flawed system. Most critically, one that you’re responsible for and your dive team is depending on.
There are many ways and several steps in developing the safest dive plan possible for public safety divers. Asking these three questions is a good starting point:
- Is there an alternative to putting divers in the water?
- If I do put divers in, how can I give them the most amount of air?
- How can I maximize their air consumption?
There are of course many other ways to answer these questions than I have suggested, and other forms of technology and dive modes. Since the vast majority of dive fatalities are a result of running out of air, public safety dive teams should be aware of the benefits of technology other industries can provide to reduce this risk. Your family is much safer today driving down the road because of advances in technology, so why shouldn’t you and your team be safer because of it also?
Public Safety Dive Team Supervisor
by Dr. Thomas Powell:
Around the world, various groups and organizations work to protect and support local communities through public safety activities. One particular group of public servants who can be found in almost any community consists of firefighters. Each day, firefighters work to save lives, fight fires, provide medical support, and in certain cases provide special team capabilities for communities. Special team capabilities may include search and rescue, hazardous materials decontamination, dive operations, and other things.
Each day, firefighters use specific gear designed to keep them safe in hazardous environments. This equipment includes items for exposure protection, breathing, and performing tasks. In many ways, the gear carried by firefighters is very similar to scuba gear carried by public safety divers and that gear often serves many of the same purposes. Listed below are some examples of these similarities.
- Turn Out Gear
- Breathing Apparatus
- Alarms and Computers
- Buddy Teams
First, firefighters carry equipment for personal protection. This gear consists of a jacket, pants, boots, gloves, and a helmet. The jacket and pants are designed to be fire-resistant and are often adorned with reflective markings for increased visibility in poor conditions. Similarly, the gloves provide hand protection as a firefighter may reach for hot objects and the boots are designed to be puncture resistant since they may be worn in dangerous environments. Lastly, the helmet protects a firefighter’s head from falling objects or airborne debris.
Like firefighters, public safety divers wear equipment for personal protection. Dry suits are often worn to protect divers from hazardous environments and to provide thermal regulation in poor conditions. Gloves are worn to protect the hands as divers perform searches and boots cover the feet (weather mounted to a dry suit or worn over soft soles) to ensure a diver can walk and move in a proper fashion. Divers even wear helmets on occasion when overhead environments or debris in the water may present the possibility of a possible head injury. Just like firefighters, public safety divers must wear equipment designed to protect them from harsh environments so that rescue or recovery operations can be performed. Similarly, the majority of personal protection equipment designed for public safety divers also has reflective taping just like the equipment worn by firefighters.
When a firefighter enters a burning building, the presence of smoke may reduce the firefighter’s ability to breath in a safe fashion. To When a firefighter enters a burning building, the presence of smoke may reduce the firefighter’s ability to breath in a safe fashion. To overcome this issue, each firefighter may wear a self-contained breathing apparatus or SCBA. An SCBA provides clean breathing gas on demand to a firefighter wearing a mask that covers his or her face. In comparison, divers cannot breathe underwater without the availability of breathing gas. Public safety divers often carry cylinders which feed compressed breathing gas to second stages attached to full-face masks. Like firefighters, full-face masks are worn to provide a clean breathing space and facial protection from the outside environment.
In both situations, cylinders are carried by public safety personnel. These cylinders must be analyzed and inspected for use. The Department of Transportation requires hydrostatic testing to be performed on cylinders every five years, and developed standards within the scuba industry call for a visual inspection every 12 months. The process of performing a visual inspection is something that public safety personnel can now be trained to do for his or her department (and for personal cylinders) through Scuba Diving International.
Many firefighters carry personal safety alarms when they are called to fight fires. The purpose of the alarm is to sound after a period of non-movement. The alarm is designed to inform others that a firefighter is in trouble as well as to signal his or her location. These alarms are called personal alert safety systems or PASS devices. Often they are worn in conjunction with a firefighter’s breathing apparatus. Similarly, public safety divers often wear computers designed to collect data and provide information related to safety. If a diver ascends too quickly or does not follow the proper profile, audible or visual alarms will signal to the diver.
With regard to tools, firefighters use many. These tools may include axes, hammers, lights, ropes, crow bars, shovels, halligan bars, wrenches, and various other items. These tools allow firefighters to perform tasks in as safe a manner as possible. Like firefighters, public safety divers may carry many different tools. These tools may include lights, knives, shears, metal detectors, pry bars, window punches, line cutters, and various other items. Though the tools used by public safety divers may not be as “heavy-duty,” they are often used for similar purposes. In each case, a public safety individual may need to cut, pry, bend, break, or even find an item. Tools are used to complete necessary objectives.
Finally, though it is not an equipment factor, both public safety divers and firefighters use buddy teams. Firefighters often maintain a “two in – two out” plan. The goal is that a paired team enters a dangerous environment together and then the pair exits together. Public safety divers work in the same fashion. A diver either dives with a buddy in the water, or attached to a tender via a tether. In each situation, every diver maintains a buddy at all times and the diver and buddy care for each other until the dive is complete.
Public safety personnel often perform similar tasks and use instruments to complete objectives that are very comparable. The working environment may be the real difference. Essentially, divers work in an aquatic environment whereas firefighters often deal with flames. Despite differing environments, equipment is generally designed to suit similar needs in these differing environments. These similarities are what make operational changes and transitions more acceptable for people serving in more than one role. A firefighter may be trained to deal with burning buildings, but when the need arises, with proper training that same firefighter can adapt to perform dive operations. The fact that the equipment has similar functionality only makes these transitions easier to understand and the use of similar equipment more sensible.
– Dr. Thomas Powell
Owner/Instructor Trainer – Air Hogs Scuba – Garner, NC