leading causes of death

What Causes Public Safety Divers to Die?

by Sean Harrison:

Every day of every year I expect to get another diving accident report on my desk, they mostly seem to come in on Mondays, and of those reports inevitably one of them is of a public safety diver that has perished. The majority of the time, the diver has perished either during a training exercise or while responding to a call. For the purpose of this article I will only write about PSD deaths, I will save the other diving fatalities for another time.

PSD deaths

Over the past year or so, I have been on a mission to figure out what the health risks are to public safety divers, what is causing injuries, why they are dying, and what ERDI can do to help prevent these accidents from happening. During this time, and the years leading up to it, I have had some very candid and frank discussions with both the divers and the medical professionals that work with them. The most astounding result of these discussions is: there simply is not enough information to pinpoint the problems. Of course there are always the cases where divers are performing tasks that they were either not trained for or were insufficiently trained for. This, in my book, is inexcusable. For this to happen it means that divers, dive team leaders, or department decision makers are 15 years behind the times. A diver not being trained to perform a public safety dive properly with today’s equipment and technology would be like training law enforcement with Tommy Guns and then issuing them an AR. For fire rescue it would be the equivalent of the academy teaching bucket brigade and then putting them on a modern pumper truck. There simply is no excuse for not receiving the proper training.

What I have learned is there are some very dedicated people out there, collecting the data and trying to make sense of it on their own time with the sole goal of protecting the community they work in. What they have put together is rather interesting, here are some numbers:

  • First known recorded PSD fatality was in 1960 and it was a double fatality involving two males
  • There have been approximately 74 documented PSD fatalities worldwide between 1960 & 2012
  • Leading cause of PSD fatalities – cardiac event
  • Second leading cause – vehicle accident

Looking at  the above bullets some appear obvious, but there are some hidden details that could save  lives. Also, this information encompasses all public safety and is not specific to public safety divers unless noted.

Leading causes

The leading cause is a cardiac event, this constitutes about 40-50% of the fatalities and the trigger for these cardiac events is overexertion and stress. Another hidden fact is many of these people had known pre-existing heart conditions. And here is another lesser known detail: the percentage of fatal cardiac events is about the same as the general population but… in the public safety community the age that this fatal event happens is younger.

The second leading cause, vehicle accidents, constitutes about 25-35% of the fatalities. There is a pretty wide range of what “vehicle accident” means, some categories are: when responding to call, struck by passing vehicle at call, and run over by another emergency vehicle.  In one collection compiled in North Carolina between 1998 and 2011, there were 24 deaths caused by vehicle accidents. Of those 24 deaths only three of the people were wearing seatbelts.


Now for the deaths that, as of now, can’t be qualified or attributed to the job – exposure to chemical or biological contaminants. We know that any time a PS diver touches the water there is a high likelihood they have been exposed to something that is not good for their health. This is not just limited to the divers, cross or transfer contaminants also get onto shore personnel such as tenders. If gear and personnel are not properly decontaminated these contaminants can also be brought back into the home.  The problem with all of this is: there is just not enough information to show just how bad this could be. We really don’t know if the exposures are manifesting as flu–like symptoms, skin burns, or stomach illness. We also don’t know what the long term effects are or will be.

The only real way to figured this out is to keep accurate records of diver activity and to the best of your ability, document what the potential exposures could have been. We know that when an automobile goes in the water there will be chemicals. We know when recovering a victim there will be biological matter. We know when there are animal carcasses nearby there are biological contaminants . And finally, if we are diving in a retention pond, recovering a car, with a victim inside, we have all of that!

The point is, keep your team safe and always decontaminate even if all you have is soap and water. And don’t forget… it’s not just the diver that gets exposed; the shore team is just as vulnerable.

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5 replies
  1. Greg Barefoot
    Greg Barefoot says:

    Great article! Can you provide some sources for the statistics that you shared. I would love to pass this on to my team.


  2. Shane
    Shane says:

    All diving involving contaminated liquids, especially chemically contaminated liquids, should ONLY be carried out by trained, professional commercial dive teams! Using appropriate, surface-supplied, contaminated diving equipment, including things such as air-hats mated to has-mat suits! And that hazard will then be a non-issue!

  3. Jon Del Bino
    Jon Del Bino says:

    Mr. Harrison, very good article. Not complicated and to the point. I specifically appreciate your data on cardiac events, emphasizing the need for annual physicals and pre/post dive medical assessment. As far a decon is concerned I have had some training from DUI and they recommend a solution we carry on our Haz Mat unit, (don’t have the name at the moment). I have used it on one occasion and it’s deployed with a back pack unit and 4500 psi Scott Air Pack bottle. DUI also recommended that we get saturated with water, from a hose, hydrant or pumper, proior to the dive. To decrease the surface tension on our equipment so contaminates are less likely to stick. In addition the DUI reps informed me of a biological hazard that exists in the east coast / south that paralyzed one diver. It gets into your sinus system via your ears, hence the reason for zip sealed head protection and full face protection. I’m in full support of any information and education on this subject matter.
    Jon Del Bino

  4. Bryan Scott
    Bryan Scott says:

    Mr Harrison,
    Sir, I would like to respectfully disagree with your findings. Though on the surface, you are correct, it is not a root cause analysis as what caused their death. I am sure that we could bring out the old mantra of “Human Error” but that doesn’t tell more than a small part of the story. Why were they in the water? Were they trained and had experience in that environment? Where they in good physical shape? Where they trained in what they were attempting to do? What was there mental state? Was there a culture of risk-taking in the team or where they mature as a team in how they approached decision making related to the diving. All of this plays into why a diver dies.

    If you want to discuss the last 5 deaths in the community, leadership is killing our divers. A failure to control the scene and failure to ensure provide proper equipment in the case of the Chicago FD diver were primary factors in his death. Buffalo Police Officer was killed because the supervisor approved a dive into 10-14 knot current for a diver with less than 6 months experience. Both of these are leadership, pure and simple. We can get into the culture in both departments that created those leaders and we would be right to do so but still is the leadership. Till we mature as a community, remove the macho ego “go” mentality and start taking responsibility for these deaths things will not change.

    If ERDI wishes to make a lasting impact on the PSD community, help make it the norm that we talk about our errors. Convince departments to openly discuss fatalities and near misses so that we can all learn.

    Bryan Scott


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