Public Safety Dive Teams: Law Enforcement vs. Fire-Rescue

By: Josh Roten

ERDI reached-out and asked if I would be willing to write an article outlining the differences between Law Enforcement dive teams and Fire-Rescue dive teams. Wanting to be a good team player and help ERDI out, I agreed. Once I started to outline what the article would look like, I quickly realized what a Hornet’s Nest this could become.

We all know there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer or description which would fit in all cases, regions or agencies. We also know cops and firefighters love to rib each other about who is better. So, this article is intended to be looked at in general terms to provoke some thought. The intent is not to pit one side against the other or say one type of team is better than the other.

Cops and firefighters are already pretty good at teasing each other about who is better! My hope is for readers to see where and how Law Enforcement and Fire-Rescue dive teams tend to be similar and where they tend to operate differently. It is my belief PSD teams in the same area/region can, and should, cooperate with each other, train together and be able to assist each other in terms of backing each other up or providing some type of service/capability the other team does not have.

The focuses of this article are about how Law Enforcement and Fire-Rescue dive teams differ but, more importantly, how they can complement or assist each other.

Some background

I am a retired fire captain from a medium-sized, full-paid, city fire department in Northern California. The last eight years of my career I ran our Dive Rescue Team. We were the only fire department dive team within about a 70-mile radius. The city I worked for is located within a county that has a good sheriff’s department dive team. Each sheriff’s department in our region has a dive team. The closest cities with a police department dive teams were about two hours away, in the San Francisco Bay area.

My department decided to form a Dive Rescue Team because we had experienced a few incidents of people and occupied vehicles into the water, and we responded in what is considered Rescue Mode, but we did not have any dive capabilities at that time. This meant we had to wait anywhere from one to two hours for the county sheriff’s dive team to be called-out, respond to our location and be ready to start a dive.

Any potential rescue was a recovery operation by the time the sheriff’s dive team arrived. That was no one’s fault, just the way our system worked at that time. My fire department command staff decided we would form our own Dive Rescue Team specifically to handle incidents in our jurisdiction within that first “Golden Hour.” I was selected as the person to build that team from the ground up, and I ran the team the next eight years until I retired.

Our fire department dive team maintained a roster of 21 divers; seven on each of the three shifts. All seven were assigned to the same Rescue Task Force station, so we always had seven divers on duty who could immediately respond to any dive incident together, along with all dive gear and related equipment.

Upon retiring, I started a company that trains, equips and provides support services for Public Safety Dive teams. In that role, most of my interaction has been with Law Enforcement dive teams. Whether anyone is willing to admit it or not, LE dive teams and FD dive teams share more similarities, than differences.

When we started our FD dive team, I had several friends on the sheriff’s department team. One of the goals I set early on was to keep them as friends. My new team was not there to steal, or even duplicate, the work the sheriff’s dive team was already doing. We talked to the sheriff’s dive team leadership early on and assured them we would not be handling recoveries or U/W CSI even in our own jurisdiction, and we would not be responding into their jurisdiction without being requested.

We also told them we would be available to respond to any surrounding jurisdiction in Rescue Mode until the local LE team could get there and take over operations. We would also be available to back-up any other dive team in our region with additional divers, gear, and special resources we had such as: a portable compressor for filling scuba cylinders on-site, portable lighting, technical (rope) rescue for accessing difficult dive sites and decontamination capabilities to name a few.

Five months after being directed to start a Dive Rescue Team, we went operational, albeit we still had a lot of training and professional development to do. We were the little brother and the sheriff’s dive team was the older brother. Our strengths were an immediate response with PSDs on-duty ‘24/7/365’, Rapid Deployment and logistical needs such as lighting for night operations, being able to fill cylinders on-site and Decon capabilities at the scene.

Early on, we shared information and ideas with the local sheriff’s dive team. We even served as evaluators for a surprise dive team call-out (drill) for them, and later they did the same for us. A good deal of team-building between the two agencies took place and it made things better for both teams. I am a believer in teams working together and utilizing a regional approach to Public Safety Diving capabilities, training, and operations. Whether it be Law Enforcement teams working with other Law Enforcement teams, or Fire and Law teams working together.

Here are two lists of general, or typical, duties and capabilities of Fire-Rescue dive teams and Law Enforcement dive teams. Some, larger agencies may be able to do everything on the lists, while other smaller teams may only be capable of doing some of the things on each list. We all know there are no exact standards in Public Safety Diving, and there are exceptions to every rule; therefore, these are just examples:

Typical Fire-Rescue Dive Team duties/capabilities:

  • Rapid Deployment
  • Dive Rescue
  • Technical (rope) Rescue
  • Confined Space Rescue: air sampling, victim packaging, retrieval systems, etc.
  • Hazardous Materials Response (special PPE, Decontamination capabilities)
  • Portable and large-area scene lighting
  • Breathing air compressors: fixed and portable
  • Mobile Command Posts/vehicles
  • Fire vessels which can also be used as dive platforms
  • EMS, often times including ALS
  • Helicopters: aerial search, transport dive team, and gear, hoist, air ambulance

Typical Law Enforcement Dive Team duties/capabilities:

  • Recovery: bodies, vehicles, evidence
  • Underwater Crime Scene Investigation
  • Preserving evidence and Chain-of-Custody
  • Follow-up / ‘Topside’ investigations
  • Advanced interview techniques
  • Patrol Vessels which can also be used as dive platforms
  • Scene security
  • Force Protection
  • VIP protection
  • Port / Maritime / Homeland Security
  • Mobile Command Posts/vehicles
  • Maritime Law Enforcement: BUI, vessel crash investigations, etc.
  • Training and preparation for testifying in court
  • Helicopters: aerial search, transport dive team, and gear, hoist, air ambulance

As I previously stated, there is no one size fit all description of what a Law Enforcement dive team or a Fire-Rescue dive team is. We probably all know of areas where the LE teams do all the diving, and there are areas where the FD teams do all diving including recoveries and underwater CSI. On the flip side, there are areas where both the PD and FD in the same city each have their own dive teams and neither one ‘gets along’ or cooperates with the other (names withheld to protect the guilty).

If your team is the only team in the area, you should be prepared

If your team is the only team in the area, you should be prepared (SOGs, training, and equipment) to handle anything that could likely occur within your jurisdiction. If you are one of two teams in the same area and cooperate well with each other, it may be that each team has certain capabilities they focus on, and the other team handles a different list of capabilities. Maybe neither team has full PSD capabilities alone, but together they do.

It is ideal if the teams can occasionally cross-train and attempt to standardize equipment, SOGs, and terminology used in dive operations. If there are multiple teams in the same region, it is great to have regional cooperation and planning with specific short, medium and long-range goals. Managers like the regional approach in many cases, especially when it comes to budgeting and sharing costs.

Some distinct differences

You will find that some LE dive teams have never heard of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standards 1006 and 1670, and do not really concern themselves with “fire department standards,” even when they relate to PSD work. The same can be said when Police Officer Standards of Training (POST) is mentioned in a fire department setting. My feeling is that it is worth being familiar with both sets of standards and using what fits your agency’s needs the best.

A potential underwater crime scene should be handled by divers trained in the identification, documentation, collection, and preservation of evidence found underwater. The legal aspects of evidence handing don’t really change just because the evidence was found underwater. Care must always be used to ensure that evidence is handled properly, so it can be used in court.

Not all FD divers are as well versed in this process as they should be. Again, there are always some exceptions. Seeking additional training from your local LE agency or District Attorney’s office (at a minimum) is good advice.

I have seen many LE dive teams where the dive gear is stowed in separate pieces. In the event of a Rescue Mode incident, the gear must be assembled before the diver can suit-up. This can eat up precious time. Many FD divers are in the habit of keeping the scuba unit assembled and ready to use, including putting a full cylinder on after each use, much like they treat their firefighting Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) so that it is ready for immediate use.

Some teams see themselves as Recovery only even when some chance of responding to a Rescue Mode incident exists, even if it is very rare. All teams should be trained and ready for any feasible dive incident that could occur within their Area of Responsibility.

Joint Powers Agreements

The use of Joint Powers Agreements to form Joint Powers Authorities has worked in many communities. Multiple agencies pool funds and other resources for specific needs and to ease the fiscal burden on any one agency.

For example, let’s say a region has four dive teams and there is a need for a quality compressor for each, but none has the funds alone to buy a new compressor. The four agencies can enter a JPA and each shares the cost of the new compressor, as well as annual maintenance and operations for the expected life of the new compressor, while at the same time putting some money away each year for a replacement compressor when the time comes. All four agencies in the JPA benefit and get what they need, at only a fraction of the cost.


Another important consideration is how agencies communicate with one another topside by radio, as well as underwater by hand, line and voice communications.

Use of Mutual Aid radio frequencies, as well as ensuring compatible underwater voice communications, standardized line (rope) signals and hand signals are should be considered. Each agency should also maintain a list of contact information for surrounding dive teams for the more routine communications: names of team leaders, phone numbers and e-mail addresses for example.

Response Plans and Pre-Incident Planning

Teams operating in the same region should consider Automatic Aid and Mutual Aid/Outside Agency Assist plans backed-up by written agreements, when necessary. Additionally, teams should consider how they use the Incident Command/Management System. If working together at a dive incident, will they be working under a Single Command, Unified Command and does each agency have an Agency Rep designated?

The vast majority of dive incidents, whether in Rescue Mode or Recovery Mode, only involve one victim. The resources needed to handle those incidents don’t usually tax a single team or agency. But, what if a vessel carrying multiple POBs were to sink, or aircraft with multiple souls on-board go down or a tour bus goes off a roadway within your Area of Responsibility.

  • Are any or all of those incidents possible in your AOR?
  • If so, have you considered what resources it would take to safely and effectively handle such an incident of that nature?

More than likely, a single team or agency would not be capable of handling these types of incidents alone. Pre-incident planning and coordination with all area teams would be very valuable in these cases. Even if only conducted as Table Top Exercises to develop lists of resource needs to be expected, which teams will handle certain responsibilities,

Incident Command/Management System issues, common communications plan and the all-important Logistical needs on a complex or extended incident such as rest, rehab, food and medical needs of personnel assigned to the incident. Air fills, lighting, scene control, documentation, public information, and finance/procurement are also issues that need to be pre-planned so they don’t have to be figured-out once a complex dive incident occurs.

Equipment Specifications/Purchasing/Maintenance

There can be advantages to teams agreeing upon standardized equipment when it comes to purchasing, especially when using an Open Bid process to save some money and the hassle of going to bid often. Standardized gear underwater in very poor visibility is also an advantage when trying to free or rescue another PSD who needs help.

Also, consider equipment maintenance. For example, it might be that one area team handles full face mask and regulator maintenance while another area team handles cylinder inspections, dry suit repairs, etc. and they share each other’s services.

Let’s look at some examples of how Law Enforcement and Fire-Rescue Dive Teams can work together.

Example 1: Floating Body.

A local LE dive team is called out to a quarry for a body floating at the surface. The victim is obviously deceased and appears to be starting to decompose. The local LE agency has a primary investigative authority and is the Incident Commander. Their team can make the dive and recover the victim, they but can’t get down the steep banks of the quarry to enter the water and will need assistance getting the victim and themselves out of the water.

The local FD dive team may be able to assist with Technical (rope) Rescue equipment and skills to provide safe access and egress for the LE divers. Meanwhile, the FD can also be setting-up on-site Decontamination. The FD can assist with getting the victim and divers up and out of the quarry, then they can decontaminate the LE divers on-site.

Example 2: Possible Drowning.

The FD dive team responds to a possible drowning at a local lake or beach. Initial operations start in Rescue Mode. After more than an hour has elapsed, the FD dive team exits the water, a new briefing is conducted, and the operation is declared a Recovery. The LE dive team can take over primary as the lead agency for investigative purposes, while the FD dive team remains on-scene to provide back-up/Safety Divers and other support services such as filling air cylinders on-site (or shuttling cylinders to/from a fill station), Rehab, Decon, etc. while the LE dive team conducts the Search, Recovery and CSI tasks.

Example 3: Sinking Vehicle.

In the event of a large-scale incident with multiple victims such as a ferry with multiple POBs sinking, a passenger aircraft into the water or a bridge collapse taking several occupied vehicles into the water, any one team’s dive capabilities would easily be overwhelmed. Prior preparation, planning and joint training for such an event between two or more area dive teams would greatly enhance the safety and overall response to such an incident.


While there some very clear and distinct differences in the primary responsibilities of a Law Enforcement dive team as compared to a Fire-Rescue dive team, there are also many times the two can, and should, work together for the benefit of all. Cops and firefighters will probably always rib each other a good deal, but let’s hope when it comes to PSD training and operations the two work as well together as possible.

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