How to Start a Public Safety Diving Team

by Dr. Thomas Powell:

Dive teams, what are they? In the mind of someone outside of the public safety dive community they are men and women who show up when everything is bad and they dive in conditions everyone else avoids. This alone should begin to show you the nature of public safety diving and how unpleasant it can become. Dive teams do not exist in every city and town simply because of the cost, risk, and skill sets needed to safely form, operate, and maintain a team of this type. If you or your department/organization are looking at setting up a dive team, there are some things you should consider and steps you should take.

Who controls the team?

First, how will the team be formed? If your locale does not have an active dive team, local laws or regulations may already place search and rescue operations in the hands of a specific department. In cases such as this, you may need to approach your local emergency management office to get more information. In many areas, sheriffs’ offices oversee search and rescue. Similarly, funding is essential. You need to find out how your city, county, and state systems fund departments. Acquiring dollars often requires a group to follow certain rules, even when first forming. For this reason, many dive teams are attached to departments already in existence. For instance, you may approach your local fire or emergency medical services to see if leadership would be willing to take on a dive team. Remember that subjects such as insurance requirements may cause hesitation, but in many cases, supplemental funding may be available to departments willing to take on essential special operations teams. Showing a need for a dive team is critical when searching for a home and for dollars. Do your research and determine how often outside dive teams were called in for assistance in past years. Determine how much water is in your local region. The more evidence you can show that supports the need for a dive team, the more likely you are to receive a positive response to the concept.

Lastly, you can always create a 501-c3. Essentially, many local emergency medical and fire services are contracted out to non-profit organizations that wish to operate in a certain region. These organizations must follow certain laws and regulations to operate, but by doing so, they can qualify for state and local funding. This plan often starts by contacting state-level emergency management to determine if they would support the development of a 501-c3 for diving in your area. If so, the next step would be to approach the county.

Developing an SOP/SOG standard

Once you have been approved to form a dive team, you need to develop a set of standard operational procedures (SOPs) or standard operational guidelines (SOGs). These are rules, regulations, guidelines, or standards for the team. These plans will include how new members are accepted and requirements for both team members and the team itself. These guidelines may include how a team operates on scene, requirements for training, new membership policies, personnel leadership standards and selection processes, and various other subjects. Essentially, you will define how you build a team, maintain that team, and remain operational in a safe fashion. Many examples can be found online that have been developed by existing teams.

Recruiting

Once you know that forming a dive team is a feasible plan, you are going to need divers. In the world of paid teams, members are often required to adhere to policies, protocols, and plans. Their jobs depend upon being a value to the team if they are to be a member. Conversely, volunteer teams often open doors to allow individuals to support communities in an unpaid fashion that works around other life activities. As a person forming a dive team, you want to find members who are committed to being a member. You will need a good core of members to handle all the tasks required of an operational dive team. A good first number of members may be eight to ten individuals. Be aware that many people out there will join a team to gain resumé padding, a free t-shirt, and in some cases a badge. The easiest way to begin is to open applications to people affiliated with the team or community public safety services (departmental personnel, community public safety personnel, etc.), and then later open application acceptance to outside individuals. You want to make sure that applicants are physically qualified to dive (with proper medical forms), physically fit, and ready to take on the task of team building. You may also initially seek out divers who are certified recreational divers to ensure applicants are already proven divers on some level. If not, remember that your first step in training will be to create divers, not public safety divers. Too many times have I shown up to work with teams that maintain a 40 member roster, but only six or seven members actually maintain and handle team activities. You need the right personnel to be successful.

Once you have developed a pool of applicants, your next step should be to test everyone. Ideally, perform a mandatory swim test to weed out individuals who may not be ready to join a team. You may also want to look at personnel histories to determine who may qualify for leadership as well as basic membership. No matter what, develop a basic membership standard in your SOP/SOG guidelines that ensures you evaluate everyone equally and fairly. Once you have tested and know your applicants, you can make the best decisions as to who qualifies for membership. In the world of paid teams, departments often control rank and leadership based on qualifications. With volunteer teams, a vote is often required by team members.

How do we get trained?

So in many cases, dive teams are established by recreational divers who wish to support their local communities. The problem is that very few states have regulations for the development and maintenance of public safety dive teams. Years ago, teams were often formed by old divers who developed field experience in public safety because of need. Today, we have insured training programs designed by large-scale training agencies. The problem is that the “this has always worked before” mindset is often still present in the minds of leadership. Our current litigious society demands we ensure safety and liability protection wherever possible.

As a dive instructor who teaches public safety diving, I cannot tell you how many times I have walked into a bay at a public safety department to meet a dive team I have been asked to train, only to discover that the team is not prepared for any sort of diving, let alone public safety diving. I have found cylinders that have not been serviced in 20 years, regulators that have never been serviced in the decade since they were purchased from a pawn shop, and even team leaders who have a total of 50 dives over twenty years of team leadership. Dive team training must be designed to instill the mindset that team operations must be safe at all times. If dive operations or training evolutions happen, they must be well organized and instill value for team members. So as an individual trying to develop a new team, remember to make sure that the courses you take are designed to truly educate your members, instill safety as a critical factor for all operations, and that the courses can educate your divers to a technician level for operations. Earning technician-level training or something equivalent ensures OSHA compliance during operations and activities. Agencies such as Emergency Response Diving International (ERDI) have worked hard to establish and maintain OSHA and NFPA compliance within training programs. Remember that once you are trained, you must continue to follow the rules to remain in compliance.

In many states training is available through local community college continuing education programs. This is often how law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical training are handled. As a team builder, your objective must be to find an instructor willing to work through a college, or in a private paid fashion, to train your team in an effective manner. Be sure to review his or her credentials, understand his or her background, and even contact the training agencies to determine the quality of education you will receive prior to beginning a program.

How do we get equipment? 

Equipment is another critical necessity for a functional dive team. In many cases new teams will require team members to own personal equipment. The problem with this is assuring members they will be compensated if equipment is damaged through team activity. Various avenues are available to acquire equipment. Specific grants exist for this purpose, and in many cases local governments that have approved a new team may budget for necessary expenses. In some cases, this may include training costs, but most states have an avenue in place for public safety training. Again, the goal is to find a quality and credentialed instructor. There is often a period where divers must wait and/or train while funding becomes available.

Funding is the most complicated part of forming a dive team. It will take time and effort but there are resources. Once you obtain funding, do your research prior to buying!! Remember that you should focus on standardizing team equipment so that all members dive similar equipment and do not cut corners where safety is involved!! Choose equipment that is easy to use, easy to get serviced locally, and easy to replace if needed. Also, focus on the teams operational tasks. Buy gear that makes sense for what your divers will be doing, not what is the “coolest” new toy on the market.

A side note must be made to state that in recent years, grant monies have become available for unmanned systems such as remotely operated vehicles. Units such as this can use sonar systems to perform searches as well as various other tasks to keep divers out of the water except for specific activities such as recoveries. This is something that any team should research where possible for the sake of safety.

What about the long-term?

Now you have a team. You have elected or put officers into place. You have obtained gear and developed a training plan. Your next step is to focus on the long term. Initial training and new toys do not mean you are good for an indefinite period. You must develop a cycle of education and service. Each year, you must perform tasks such as servicing regulators and cylinders, and ensure that your divers remain refreshed, and physically and mentally prepared to operate in the realm of public safety diving. Do not be afraid to establish regular swim tests and medical evaluations. Also ensure an equipment officer monitors equipment use and function to ensure your divers are always safe and prepared. When problems are found, document everything and keep your records!!

Lastly, do not work alone!! The public safety community is a great one! If you are training, ask your local EMS units to send an ambulance. Make your divers work with local EMTs to establish baselines and physical data before and after dives. Call your local fire department and request a brush truck so that you practice decontamination after dives. Even call local law enforcement to help with practicing setting up scenes and handling evidence. You can even establish mutual aid agreements and begin training on occasion with other teams. We dive the way we train, so build relationships and know that your region is full of resources. If you work with those around you, you will be better prepared when everyone is on scene down the road and conditions are difficult. There is no glory in recovering the deceased or even lost evidence. Dive teams are called in because they are needed, not for fun. When you accomplish your missions, you may feel a sense of pride, but it will be because of a job well done. You are there to assist in finding lost items and recovering lost individuals. Help is never a bad thing when these are your objectives.

If you are forming, or plan to form a new dive team, I wish you luck. Even when taking on this task, ask for help and learn how others have been successful. Instructors and Instructor Trainers from ERDI are all over the world and there is always someone who can help you build and accomplish your plan.


Thomas Powell – Owner/Instructor Trainer – Air Hogs Scuba, Garner, NC

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