Seven Signs You Aren’t Taking Water Safety Seriously

By: Aaron Bradshaw

Picture this: It is a hot, humid summer day and your team receives a call for a drowning on a local river. Personnel from multiple agencies are already in the water on boats and along the shore working to find the victim. However, you are the first dive team on the scene and likely the first team with significant water safety training. You encounter individuals without proper PPE, PFDs, etc. How many times has your team arrived on a similar scene?

In Emergency Response diving we encounter hazards both submerged and on the surface throughout the course of our duties. It is our job to ensure that we are mitigating these hazards with the proper gear, planning, and training. These are some questions to ask yourself and make you think about whether you are taking water safety seriously.

  1. Did you do a proper scene assessment and size up? What hazards are present? 

Safety starts before anyone gets into or near the water.

One of the most important actions you can take when arriving on a scene is to do a proper scene assessment. Start by identifying any hazards on land. Identifying these hazards helps ensure those on dry land stay safe as well. 

In the water, identify surface and subsurface hazards. Boating traffic, submerged objects, entanglement hazards, entrapment hazards and many more can be present. If in a marina or near boat docks, check for power sources as well. Kill power to the dock before entering the water if possible.

For example, our team recently responded to a stormy, wet, and cold call where our truck and trailer were staged over a mile away. It was a one-mile ride into the site by four-wheel drive ATV’s only on a dark, stormy night. If a diver incident occurred, it was determined we would have no way to get divers safely back to other first responders in a reasonable time. Think not only about the immediate hazards but how you would respond to an incident with one of your divers and get them to safety. Access and egress should be focused on during your scene assessment and size up.

  1. How rusty are your watermanship skills? 

As a diver, tender, or surface support, watermanship skills must be maintained. Anyone on scene and close to the water should have the basic skills down pat. Our team has instituted mandatory segments of the swim test and watermanship skills at every pool training session. This ensures that everyone remains current and gives the new team members opportunities to train, identify gaps, or complete their swim tests for current ERDI courses. Make it a rule that when team members are performing swim tests that the entire team joins in. With our team, the instructors usually participate in the swim when not timing students.

  1. What is the state of your physical fitness? 

This is one that many of us don’t want to hear, especially during holiday months of eating and traveling. Physical fitness plays a huge role in safety, especially water safety where a large portion of medical issues can be traced back to physical fitness. 

The job of a public safety diver is a strenuous one that involves heavy equipment and oftentimes brutal conditions. In addition to watermanship skills at every training, implement a team exercise at every training. Even if you can’t make it to the pool or open water your team can benefit from a quick workout. During training, use those with requisite experience to check heart rates and blood pressure before and during workouts. This helps identify problems and gives known baselines when medical checks are performed on scene.

A couple local instructors and team leads have created challenge groups on popular fitness tracking apps that help to push everyone. Peer pressure can work in a good way here.

  1. Have you made proper preparations for air and water temperature? 

We have all seen overheated or cold divers on scene or at training that are on the verge of hyperthermia or hypothermia. Putting a diver in the water that is already experiencing some sort of thermal distress is never a good idea.

Plan ahead and ensure that your divers aren’t in the heat or cold by putting up a tent to shade them or get them in a warm/cool ambulance. We were recently on a call where our operation was delayed for other response personnel to enter the scene. Putting our divers in the back of a warm ambulance kept them fresh and ready to go.

  1. Where is your Personal Flotation Device (PFD)? 

It is all too often when walking around a training session or scene that you encounter someone near the water without a PFD on, or the PFD is unzipped/unbuckled. Strong swimming skills are not a replacement for a properly worn PFD. The PFD is there in case you get pulled in, or slip and hit your head on something, or are otherwise incapacitated. Wearing a PFD on is one of the easiest and quickest safety measures you can take. Make it a habit that your PFD is the first thing you grab out of the response vehicle.

  1. Are you wearing appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)? 

As PSDs, we must treat all water as contaminated as most open bodies of water are contaminated in some way. Whether that be animal waste, organophosphates from surrounding farms, or even petroleum-based contaminants from roadway runoff, almost every body of water has some contaminant. As we can’t immediately test for every contaminant on site when performing a rescue or recovery, we must treat that body of water as contaminated. Ensure the team has the appropriate training for ERDI Full Face Mask Ops and Dry Suit Ops. Additional courses in Contaminated Water Ops are also available.

Most importantly, don’t forget your tenders. Ensure tenders are also wearing appropriate PPE. As lines and gear come out of the water the tender can and will be exposed to these hazards as well. Gloves and protective eyewear are a great start to keeping the tender protected. On your tender line setups, attach a pocket with cutting tools, gloves, and any other items needed. That way the tender will have these at hand. Gloves, eye protection, and other items can also be placed in every tender PFD pocket.

  1. Are you including possible changing water conditions in your plan? 

It is important to evaluate the water conditions for temperature and physical hazards as mentioned above. 

Some things to think about: 

  • Current
  • Is the water rising/falling or is there a potential of a dam release or oncoming floodwater from upstream?
  • Are there potential storms upstream?
  • When is high tide/low tide?
  • What contaminants are present?

Water conditions such as volume, level, and temperature can many times be gathered from government websites via your mobile phone. Water quality reports for contaminants may be available from your local or federal environmental organizations. Use all the information available to make the best safety decision for your team. 

In summary, taking all of these into account in your plan will help ensure that you and your divers achieve your desired goals and go home safely. Set an example of safety with your team on every call you respond to.

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