Public Safety Divers: Health and Fitness Part 7

Why it is important to remember that leaders and senior divers are not exempt from health checks and fitness.

By: M. Smith

As a senior member and Operations Commander for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office Search and Recovery Team, I learned a valuable lesson back in May of this year. As with most public safety training, not just diving, we constantly learn from lessons experienced in the field, whether they are good or bad. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that we are not invincible and it doesn’t matter whether or not you are a team leader, a tender, a diver, or boat operator; we all need to keep up on our fitness and have periodic dive-specific medical examinations.  This becomes even more imperative the older we get.

At one point in time not in the recent past, I was indeed a spring chicken full of piss and vinegar.

I didn’t regularly exercise but, because of experience, I was still able to dive at optimal performance. For as long as I can remember, all the specialized teams, especially the Emergency Response Team and Hazardous Devices Unit, have all had some type of physical conditioning program on their training day while the Search and Recovery Team has only had the annual skills testing done in January or February of every year, which consisted of a watered down version of the IADRS swim test. The blame stops and lies with leadership such as myself. As a Public Safety Dive team with full time assignments elsewhere, all the maintenance, boat operations, mandatory safety training, and of course in water training have to be completed in an 8-hour day once a month. So, bearing this in mind, what usually suffers is we either get hardly any time at all in the water or we spend more time trying to fix equipment temporarily just to get in the water.

Physical fitness and medical clearance should be the first and foremost factor with dive teams.

As I stated before, I learned this lesson the hard way. I am proud to say that our team is no longer a bunch of old buzzards, but instead we have infused the team for the most part with young, vibrant members who are part of a new generation focusing on their physical well-being in order to be the best they can be at diving under stressful conditions. This younger generation of divers is forcing those of us with the old guard to switch our focus from the “let’s get the job done” to “let’s make sure we are healthy so we can do the job right without incident”. Diving in and of itself is an inherently dangerous sport. However, for Public Safety Divers that danger is multiplied exponentially due to the environment in which we dive in, the specialized equipment we use, and the stress of the actual reason we are diving to begin with.

During the week of May 22-26, 2017, the Durham County Sheriff’s Office embarked on a training week for the year to start a new partnership with Air Hogs Scuba that had been in the works for over 2 years. See, we have been certifying our divers through PADI since the inception of the team up to Master Diver. Three years ago, three of us became certified as Dive Masters, being the first since the late Captain Eric Scott who was one of the original members of the team from 1983 up until his death in January 2013. While PADI is primarily a recreational dive agency, we worked with Wake URT and NCURT’s Chuck Elgin who trained us to tailor the recreational dive skills to the Public Safety diving arena. However, because we did not have a physical fitness program installed with the team some of us older divers had become out of shape and were getting our physicals from primary care physicians, not dive physicians. That means that we were being cleared as fit to dive based on the recreational arena, not the stress related to diving in the public safety realm. I, as one of those (3) Dive Masters, assumed that because I passed all the tests to be certified that I could handle anything that came my way as I worked toward Emergency Response Diver and all the advanced work that comes afterwards.

During the initial swim qualifications, I struggled but eventually made it through with my teammates.

My performance, as well as the performance of a few others, was not optimal to say the least, especially for someone who is supposed to lead. A few days after our actual swim test, we decided to internally perform a second swim test to see how everyone did after a week of stress. I believe that several factors, from the unrelenting rain that previous week to the stress of worrying over swim qualifications again, in addition to my less than peak physical conditioning and a few bad habits lead me to experience a cardiac event. A number of divers on site that day from Air Hogs, my team mates, and the expert professionalism of Rebel Coombes with Wake County EMS recovered me from the water, treated me, and had me on my way to a full recovery before I ever made it to the hospital. After encouraging words, an appetite to be better, and teammates who care to make the team healthier, I have started to turn that physical fitness and overall conditioning around. Several weeks after the training, the Sheriff’s Office budgeted for each team member to have an actual physical conducted under stress conditions to measure our abilities to function as divers, and more importantly, as Public Safety Divers. I am happy to say every one of the team members that took part in our certification training was medically cleared and are taking their physical conditions more seriously. The moral of the story is we all need to do our part to make sure each and every one of us returns home at the end of training or a dive mission. As team leaders or commanders, we cannot exempt ourselves from the physical conditioning and the medical clearances just simply because of our positions, ranks, or experience on the teams. We must hold ourselves accountable first before we lead others into the deep dark realms we operate in.

Prepared by:

M. Smith  |  Sergeant-Criminal Investigations
Search and Recovery Team Dive Master
Contact info: Office (919)560-0885  |  FAX (919)560-0888

If you liked this article, check out our other Health and Fitness chapters below:
Health & Fitness

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