10 Useful Tips From Seasoned Emergency Response Diving Experts

By: Jason Bowen

In Emergency Response Diving we have the opportunity to learn unique skills.  In my years of diving, I have had the opportunity to work with several teams in various locations.  I learn something new constantly. The following tips are a few things I’ve picked up that continue to hold true.  These are tips I use in my own diving an amongst my team, the Charleston County, South Carolina, Sheriff’s Office Under Water Recovery Team (URT).  Be sure to dive within your own limits, training, and your agency’s policies/procedures.

1. Plan your dive, and dive your plan

This concept is imparted to most divers in their basic open water training.  In Emergency Response Diving it is of paramount importance. Having a good plan allows team leaders to accurately relay details to the team, and the command structure to which they answer.  If the members of a team are to follow the plan, it must be communicated clearly, typically in the mission briefing. It is then the team members who must subscribe to the plan if they are to “dive the plan”.  If one team member decides to do things their way, it can make the entire plan implode. This brings up the importance of each team member having a voice, while still respecting the leader’s decision on a plan of action. Team members should be trained on the importance of following the plan.  Leaders should implement members’ suggestions when possible to foster trust amongst the team.

2. Be ready with a backup plan

As Emergency Response Diving professionals, we are well acquainted with Murphy’s Law and its antics.  Emergency Response Diving encompasses so many variables, that we must always be ready to counter those.  Any of us with even a little Emergency Response Diving experience have seen what can happen. I’ve seen the tide in a river flip a plane upside down from its original position, logs have suddenly appeared in the path of the car we were pulling out, cars have slid under docks and required re-working.  No matter what your mission, always have another way to accomplish it. Don’t forget to communicate these backup plans. If you’re the diver, communicate with the surface on what changes need to be made. If you’re the surface support, be ready for seemingly contradictory requests and understand these requests may start coming in for the backup plan.

3. Regularly train your search patterns.

Public safety professionals are often warned not to become complacent.  The same is true for our search patterns. As a team, develop your core and regular patterns.  These should work for your team, in the environment in which you regularly operate. If each member knows the patterns you use, they will have the ability to switch on the fly to go to that backup plan you made.  Training on search patterns is a great time to allow that team member who has a new idea (read, “better way to do it”) to try it out. Your team may find that fresh idea works. That member may find there’s a reason your team always executes certain plans a certain way.  Do “dirt dives” with your patterns before you get wet. Have your more experienced team members lead these types of training.  Train for your patterns to not work perfectly. Place or simulate obstacles during your dirt dives so you’ll have a plan on how to handle them in the water.  Explain to your lesser experienced members how obstacles and small fixed objects help the divers confirm the effectiveness of the search pattern. Teams should be given a scenario and the members should then be allowed to choose and explain their choice of a search pattern. It’s important that Emergency Response Diving teams train ALL members, including their non-diving tenders, on the patterns.  Each team member needs to know what equipment is needed to set up each pattern.  If a team leader calls for a certain search pattern, every person on the team should be able to arrange and deploy that pattern.  Train your patterns in all conditions.  This will help you know which pattern is best from a boat, vs the shore and in clearer water vs zero visibility. Training on your search patterns will help your team learn how much weight is needed for the pattern in different conditions.

4. Make good use of pool days

Don’t forget to go over the basics you learned in open water.  A pool is an excellent place to have team members see how far they can swim in an out of air emergency.  Clear pool water allows team trainers to demonstrate skills to new members and improve the skills of existing members.  Good pool utilization allows you to train year round and keep your skills sharp.  My team regularly practices critical skills such as doffing and donning full face masks, regular scuba masks, and switching to emergency gas supplies. The pool is a perfect controlled environment for that. You don’t have to paint over your expensive team masks for a blackout. The best mask blackout I’ve seen was a “blank” made of duct tape folded onto itself that could then be switched from mask to mask.  A pool can be incorporated for the first half of the day’s training, and then the same skills can be practiced in open water in the afternoon. Pool days are an excellent opportunity for any non-diving tenders to see a search pattern executed in clear water. Pool days should also be used to encourage team physical fitness. Incorporate at least portions of the swim tests for the Emergency Response Diver certification.  Finally, use your pool days as recruiting opportunities! If your team has the necessary dive professionals on board (or you can borrow one from a nearby team), have an intro to diving session for other members of your public safety organization. You just might get some new recruits out of it.

5. Dive different conditions

Don’t get stuck in the rut of only making public safety dives.  We are a rare breed that enjoys diving in conditions in which most people wouldn’t even enter the water.  Don’t let those conditions be your only experience.  Seeing how dive masters brief, and manage, a boatload of divers on various skills is an eye-opening experience.  If your team can arrange travel to clearer, or darker, conditions than you’re used to, do it!  By diving in various, including better and recreational, conditions than you normally dive, you’ll be a more well-rounded diver.

6. Learn new skills & equipment

When the opportunity arises, practice skills and become familiar with equipment you might not use anytime soon.  If your team typically maintains great buoyancy because you’re typically in clear(ish) still water, learn how to stick to the bottom like a catfish in heavy river currents, and vice-versa.  Learn what equipment is out there. Knowing how various pieces of equipment operate will help you help your team make informed purchasing decisions. As an Emergency Response Diver, you may be called upon to give an opinion on a piece of equipment used by a diver who becomes injured or worse.

7. Learn from dive-related injuries

It is said that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.  Diving, as both a recreational past time and especially an occupation (even on a part-time, Emergency Response Diving basis), carries increased risk.  One certain way to reduce that risk is learning what we can from dive-related injuries. There are lessons to be learned at both the overall team level, and the individual diver level.  Learning about how to prevent dive-related injuries through the findings from the investigations that follow these injuries make us better divers. Better divers make better Emergency Response Diving teams.  One of the best places to learn about these reports is on the Diver Alert Network’s (DAN) website.  There are also Facebook groups dedicated to helping divers learn from dive-related injuries.  Take time at your team’s training to review an article as a team, especially if you find one that hits close to home.

8. Trust the diver doing the job

I’ve been on both ends of this tip.  When you are the diver completing a task, all you want is for the surface to leave you alone for a minute and let you do the job.  When you’re on the surface, especially in a supervisory role, you can’t get enough details.  On the surface, you have to remind yourself to hold back on inquiries, and especially suggestions, and let the diver work.  As an Emergency Response Diver or supervisor, you must know your teammates’ (and your own) ability and trust them to complete their task. You must also know when to assist or ask for assistance.  

9. Build relationships with nearby teams

If your team hasn’t experienced a mission in which you needed the assistance of another team, that day is coming.  By reaching out to the teams near you in routine, training times, you’ll be best prepared to assist each other when needed.  If your team has a particular training you need, reach out to nearby teams and see if they have one coming up. If not, see if they would like to plan that training with you.  Training together can allow you to split the cost and effort. Invite your neighboring teams to your routine trainings. Get to know the equipment and divers of your neighboring teams.  Building these relationships will create team integration that will allow you to work together seamlessly when needed for a mission. Having a relationship with a nearby team can allow your team to go out of town to train while still being able to provide coverage for your community via your Emergency Response Diving partner teams.

10. Train your replacement

At some point, even the most dedicated of us will have to move on from Emergency Response Diving for one reason or another.  If you’re a member of an Emergency Response Dive team, you should want to leave your community a legacy of professional, well-trained divers.  The best way to do this is by helping newer team members grow into their roles of experienced divers and team leaders. If you are a newer diver, find your niche.  Do you like to help teach, or are you good at helping repair and maintain equipment? If a team member expresses interest in a particular aspect of your team, be sure to facilitate that interest.  It doesn’t matter if you are new or experienced, you should be seeking out training opportunities to attend or send team members to.  Break your team up into specialties, for example; truck, air fill, equipment, and training.  Rotate members in and out of those responsibilities so all members know what it takes to maintain your team. If you are a new member, seek out opportunities to learn to lead your team. If you are an experienced member or team leader, watch for those members who show leadership potential and foster it.

These tips are some that I apply regularly in my diving career and in the team I am a member of.  It is my hope that these tips, and their explanations, will help you and your team shorten any learning curves that you may have.  Try applying these tips to yourself and your team from multiple perspectives. If you are a team leader or trainer, remember what it was like to be a new diver.  If you are the new diver try to think about what it’s like as a team leader to focus on the “big picture” while applying these tips. No tip can ever replace your own good judgment for your particular situation.  Be sure to only apply these tips within the bounds of your own training, skill, and agency policies.

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