In addition to buying really cool dive gear, this method will introduce you to some of the most incredible people along the way. Fortunately, there is no shortage of crazy smart, talented, and dedicated individuals in the dive industry.
First, it’s important to realize that this is not going to be like any other scuba diving course you have taken. ERDI courses are designed to save lives, recover bodies and sensitive crime scene evidence, and place divers in hazardous environments.
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.