Most Public Safety Divers (PSDs) are involved in some part of Emergency Services; Fire, LE, ALS or BLS. When working for emergency services, we use PPE on every call we make. If we see a person fall off their bicycle, we think nothing about putting on a pair of gloves before we touch them. If we need to enter a structure that is on fire, we automatically don our bunker gear. A police officer puts on a bullet proof vest with the same casualness he puts on a t-shirt. Each of them use PPE every day with no thought or effort; it is not only expected, it is required.
Dry suits tend to be looked upon as a protective tool against cold. They offer thermal protection and are used by the recreational and PSD diving communities for that reason.
Recreational divers using dry suits typically dive in cold water environments up to and including ice conditions. As a practice and objective of diving, they almost always stay within the borders in the water column. Public Safety Divers as a rule, do not.
Public Safety Divers are in the water to locate something. If that something was floating, we would not need divers. Public Safety Divers tend to dive ON the bottom, not within the water column. On the bottom is sediment.
Sediment is naturally occurring and consists of a variety of most everything that water touches or is touched by water. It is material that is broken down by processes of weathering and erosion, and is subsequently transported by the action of water. Thus, it includes chemicals, minerals and metals that are not water soluble and have a specific gravity greater than water sink and come to rest in sediment.
Petroleum products are not water soluble. Dioxins are much heavier than water and not water-soluble. Agent Orange is not water soluble. Minerals and metals are heavier than water and are not water soluble. Mercury sinks. Chlorobenzenes are not water soluble and the amount of chlorobenzene in sediment may be 1000 times higher than that of the surrounding water. Which would you want to rub into unprotected?
It does not matter what chemical, mineral or metal we name as a contaminate. If it is in the sediment, it is where PSDs dive. If ANY of those chemicals were spilled on dry land, is there ANY Emergency First Response Department that would allow ANY of their employees to mitigate the hazard WITHOUT PROPER PPE?
If your dive team is using dry suits for thermal protection only, or your team does not see the need for dry suits, then you are lacking the proper awareness of PPE for the job. This would be the equivalent of a Haz-Mat team responding to a chemical spill and dressing in jeans and t-shirts. You probably ask for Dry Suits in your budget requests instead of PPE gear for your divers.
We concern ourselves with contaminated water and never consider that the work and diving that we do is not in the water, but rather in the sediment layer under the water. Until we recognize the potential hazards and likely exposures to ourselves and our dive team members, we are accepting the ridiculous idea that firefighters do not need bunker gear, police officers do not need Kevlar vests and paramedics do not need latex gloves.
Dry Suits = Personal Protective Equipment. It is time for us to accept that and work towards better protecting ourselves and our dive teams.
About the Author
Mark is a 32 year career firefighter and has been an active diver since 1979. Mark holds instructor credentials from 5 scuba agencies and specializes in Underwater Crime Scene Investigation. He has taught from Hawaii to North Carolina and been a consultant for numerous organizations, institutions and manufacturers in the field of Public Safety Diving. He is the author of PSDiver – A Textbook for Public Safety Diving and the Editor / Publisher of the free E-Zine, PSDiver Monthly. He is also a member of International Training’s Training Advisory Panel.
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