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How to Search and Recover Under the Ice
by Dr. Thomas Powell:
Public safety divers often deal with environments that can be viewed as unpleasant. Extreme heat, cold, contaminated water, and problematic entry points can all cause major issues for dive operations. One factor that can be problematic for any type of dive operation is ice. Ice diving is a subject that many recreational divers will not even consider. The idea of entering freezing water and potentially an overhead environment instills fear in many. Despite this, there are some public safety divers who choose to dive under the ice to perform recoveries and bring closure to families when needed.
What is ice diving?
What is ice diving? For those who have not tempted the frigid world of ice diving, it can be a very unique experience. In many ways, even recreational ice diving is a lot like public safety diving. An entry point must be found and in some cases a hole must be cut through the ice. The divers wear harnesses and are tethered to a surface support team. In truth, ice diving in general is a complex style of diving that requires extensive training, experience, and education. Essentially, take the dangers associated with extreme temperatures and complex equipment, and then place everything into an overhead environment.
First, equipment must be considered in regard to ice-based recovery operations. The environment requires that all equipment must be designed to remain functional in extreme cold. To begin with, first stages should be environmentally sealed. If you have never seen a first stage fail in cold water, it is an amazing thing to see. Unsealed piston first stages have the least defense against cold water failures due to freezing temperatures. Second, dry suits with proper undergarments can mean the difference between a comfortable dive and true misery. With regard to public safety divers, undergarments are often an afterthought. Fancy dry suits have little value if the diver is not properly insulated. Dive teams must remember that proper exposure protection is critical. This includes proper gloves and hoods for extremity protection. Finally, tethers provide an egress route to possibly the only known exit from the water. This means that proper harnesses and tethers are essential. This includes any tethers needed to anchor tenders at the surface. Remember that ice is a slippery substance and a tender needs to remain secure whether he or she is on foot or in a prone position.
Second, ice diving does have factors that associate with any type of public safety dive operation. Divers are tethered, equipment malfunctions must be planned for and practiced, communications with tenders must be practiced, and safety is always paramount. Despite these similarities, further problems can develop because operational tasks are now performed in an extreme environment that may include overhead obstacles. For instance, a team may be well versed at prepping a vehicle to be lifted but how do you further deal with ice on the surface? If surface ice is moving, can team members safely remove obstacles as needed to protect surfacing divers and prevent injury? If contaminant or cold-related injuries do occur, is there easy access to get an injured team member to EMS personnel or is the entry point located too far from emergency resources for proper safety? If night falls, are there sufficient power sources and lights to illuminate the scene as needed to provide proper oversight and safety? These factors can create situations in which a dive must be postponed until ice melts or a group with proper training can assist with the operation.
Ice recovery operations require extensive planning before anyone touches the ice. Scene preparation may take longer and a team must decide if it has the proper training and capabilities to perform the recovery. If a team has received proper training, skill sets must be practiced and performed until the team can function skillfully as a unit while mitigating potential problems. For instance, in the event that a diver in a team of two becomes untethered, the action of locating a lost diver must be performed repeatedly to ensure that all parties understand how to react and how to find the way back to the entry point. Anything less could result in a major injury or fatality during a real operation. If you or your team is interested in learning these skill sets, the ERDI Ice Diving Operations and the ERDI Ice-Surface Rescue classes can help you start this educational pathway.
The truth about ice diving operations is that they are very similar to standard public safety dives, with the addition of problematic factors. You still run the proper search patterns needed for the dive, but you may limit the distance of your search based on safety and distance from the entry point. You must also undergo extensive planning and work overtime to ensure safety for all parties involved. The reality is that becoming a public safety diver is a first step. Once you understand the proper practices and procedures of public safety diving, ice diving operations training will teach you to adapt to a more complicated and unforgiving environment with the support of a well-trained team.
– Dr. Thomas Powell – Owner/Instructor Trainer – Air Hogs Scuba, Garner, NC