In a time not so long ago (at least to me) in the growing pains of the middle 1980’s, the Public Service Diver was soon to be thrust into evolution. At this time in my diving endeavors, if you owned a set of scuba gear you could be called upon to act as a recovery diver. The call may come from a Fire Department, Law Enforcement or EMS division. The caller always started with, “We need you to just drop down and do a recovery”. Such a simple phrase would lead to a broad spectrum of possibilities and dangers for the diver. The public service diver may be requested to dive looking for a body, weapon, vehicle, boat, some type of evidence used in a crime or any combination of the above. In the caller’s mind all you had to do was descend upon this item and simply bring it up. If the call was for a drowning victim, rarely would we try a rescue or resuscitation of the victim. Most public service divers simply were not trained even in the very basic life saving techniques or we were told at the time any submersion longer than 45 minutes was always a signal 30 (fatality). Later this was found not to be true in some cases.
After several incidents (deaths or near deaths) the tide started changing. Fire, L.E., and EMS started looking to their own groups for the public service divers. Unfortunately with the same mental attitude of sending the diver into the water be it: cold, deep, zero viz, rapid water, ice or all of the above, with the task of simply bringing said item to the surface. There was no budget for extra equipment or even many times a second diver.
As you can see, Public Service divers on the most part were poorly trained and with only their own basic personal dive equipment. Looking back at these times it is a wonder we did not have more injuries and deaths than we did. Early 90’s – Fire, L.E. and EMS started implementing better guidelines, though not enough. I remember when the call went out for public service divers to be at least rescue trained. This made Command staff feel warm and fuzzy… of course they usually were not divers themselves. The Command staff mind set was that a rescue certification would really bring their dive team to a higher level of proficiency. As a public service diver we had to go to the school of hard knocks. We soon realized just dropping down and doing some blind searching to find our item was not as simple as it sounded. If we did find, let’s say the weapon we were looking for, we would immediately surface with this item to show the rest of the team. Lots of team high 5’s would be in order and then would come the team photos with everyone huddled around the item, smiling and giving the thumbs up.
But once in court, being questioned by a defense attorney, the Public Service Diver would on occasion be made to look very bad. Little things, such as questions on the depth of the water, distance of the item from shore, would often set up the public service diver for failure in court. So we adapted, and again learned from our mishaps in the legal realm. We were also realizing that past practices of simply tying a rope around the diver and sending them into all types of water conditions was not working well. The public service diver needed more structure and a lot more training.
The year is now 2000 and this new training agency called ERDI has just launched. What a breath of fresh air!! ERDI has met OSHA’s guidelines along with NFPA recognition. Now dive teams could come together to work on large scale events. The teams may have never practiced together before this call out but that is not a problem because both teams are ERDI certified. Having continuity in this industry is a must and we have learned this over the years through the many struggles presented to the PSD. We have learned to know what we are doing and how to do it well. As well as deciding if the risk is worth the benefit of the dive. ERDI offers many opportunities in training the public service dive teams. I have to say as a dive team commander who cares about his team members deeply, “Thanks ERDI, we have all come a long way. With your help, you have given dive teams more knowledge on a wide spectrum”. Where else can you get specialized training such as Under Water Crime Scene Investigation, Under Water Threat Assessment, Going to Court, Swift Water rescue, basic and advanced level Medic programs and so many more all under one roof? As I always say, “There is never a routine dive” and ERDI has the courses to train us in all levels of public service. You guys rock! Keep up the continuing education, research and development, and again thank you.
Deputy D. Autry
Sheriff’s Office, Dive Team Commander