Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Q&A

By: Sean Harrison

With the great response of the video just released, Miami Dade, A Closer Look, we figured we would do a follow-up question and answer session because like any good movie, the books are normally even better. There were only so many details we could include in the movie and now it’s time for the rest of the story. First, let me set the scene (just in case you haven’t seen the movie). We are here at the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR) Training Center in Doral, Florida. For those of you not familiar with Florida, it’s located just north and west of Miami. Next stop…the Everglades. The training center is almost as impressive as this team; they have a confined space training area, simulated collapsed building, planes, and car bodies – all the scenarios they encounter in their normal day. Since we are here for the dive team, that portion is also impressive with a pool and a dive locker that most teams would love to have, but they are outfitting over 500 divers.

Alright, so back to the interview; I have an impressive group of guys, three chiefs, one Captain, Lieutenants, and Fire Fighters sitting here to answer the questions right up to Chief Downey. This is a panel of experience like I have never had the privilege to sit in front of before; more years of experience that I don’t think even they have counted up. And this does not include what we encountered when we left the Training Center and went into the field. You’ll have to watch the movie for that information. So, let’s move on to the questions.

With such a big team spread out over a massive area, how do you keep it all straight? What are the roles and responsibilities of each member on the dive team?

Essentially, the roles and responsibilities of each member on the dive team start with ACCOUNTABILITY. Every dive team member starts with assuring that the equipment is properly inspected and checked out prior to every tour of duty and after utilizing the equipment after each dive incident. The other responsibility is that of looking out for our team member. Providing a “buddy” equipment check, assisting in dressing out, or constantly communicating underwater are some of the ways we account for each other.  Also, every member has to maintain proficiency training every year with the ultimate goal of maintaining a constant state of readiness.

A lot of people sort of know Miami; lots of people have flown through the city, but you cover much more than that. I drive down here pretty frequently, mostly on my way to the Florida Keys, and I know it to be a very large area.  What are the areas that you respond to?

As diverse as our Miami culture is, so is our response area. But to better illustrate this point, let’s provide some information regarding the area we serve:

  • 1,971-square-mile area of Dade County
  • Population of 2.6 million
  • Topography consists of more than 1,000 rock pits and lakes, 1,500 miles of canals, 75,000 residential pools, and over 300 miles of coastline, including offshore islands and waters, causeways, and ocean beaches as well as our Everglades marsh and swamps.

Again, I know a little about your response area and I know it is varied.  You have the Everglades to the west and south, water control canals, ocean, and rock pits. How does MDFR respond to dive incidents?

Depending on the type of incident, a dive assignment will vary. Our basic dive assignment will initially dispatch 2 Rescues; 1 for patient transport, 1 suppression, 2 Battalion Chiefs (Second as Safety Battalion). If necessary, 1 Fireboat for an ocean incident as well as 1 Air Rescue for an open water incident will be dispatched initially. The intent of the initial dispatch is to deploy at least 4 Divers; additional units will be added as necessary to meet requirement or need of the incident.

How many people are utilized as surface support and what are their tasks/functions?

All units or individuals on scene that are not diving will serve as surface support. These personnel may or may not be divers. This may include a firefighter, Lieutenant, Captain, or Chief. The key component for our dive rescue program is TEAMWORK. During an incident, our divers will make entry into the water, but due to the nature of our work, personnel on land may have one of the following tasks:

  • Incident command
  • Line tending
  • Back-up diver
  • Information gathering from witnesses
  • Safety officer
  • Triage, treatment, or transport group

With over 500 divers, MDFR must have a very large amount of equipment. How many kit set-ups (dive gear) do you have in rotation on any given day?

MDFR has 150 operational units with 275 complete sets of dive gear that can respond to a dive assignment anywhere in the county, at any given time, and up to 3 miles off shore.

What training exercises do you run and how often do you drill per month or year?

Our divers are required to perform a minimum of 12 dives a year that simulate typical dive rescue calls. Team members also complete an Annual Performance Training Evaluation (APTE) which consists of the NFPA Watermanship Swim Evaluation and Public Safety Diving scenario/skills evaluation. This evaluation assesses proficiency in current rescue practices. The APTE is administered by Certified Public Safety Diving Instructors.

MDFR Dive Rescue Training Instructors are required to meet the ERDI Instructors qualifications annually.

The MDFR Training Division also administers Proficiency Improvement Training (PIT) that includes more hazardous dive training, such as confined space with multi-victim rescue from school bus, overturned vessels, and aircraft. In our training, we are constantly mindful of our own divers and practice down diver rescues/RIC training, out-of-air emergency scenarios, as well as updating divers in current rescue practices/standards/equipment.

Florida is one of those states that people want to move to and after reading this and seeing the movie, I am sure divers, some even with other teams, will want to at least inquire into being part of the MDFR team. For a person who wants to be on the dive team, what should they prepare for? What are the minimum requirements to get on and stay active on the dive team?

This type of diving is not like recreational SCUBA diving. It involves skills and guidelines obtained from recreational, military, commercial, technical, and scientific diving. It should be classified as a separate modality of diving. Like all aspects of firefighting, the job comes with the need to be in a consistent state of readiness to be able to perform at the level of the hazardous situations that are typically encountered. This understanding should be fully embraced. A diver should be prepared in being submerged underwater in a constant immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) environment. Comfort in the water, mastery of skills, global awareness, cognitive pliability, critical decision making, being physically fit, and mentally strong are attributes needed for a dive team member.

We require each member to have an Open Water and Advance Diver Certification. Afterwards, members are required to successfully complete a Watermanship Swim Evaluation along with a two-week, in-house course to certify one as an Emergency Response Diver 1 Technician. Currently, we are in the process of requiring a Rescue Diver Certification as well.

How does ERDI better prepare your divers for the calls the team might go on? How are the various trained divers integrated on an incident in order to work together?

Since our capabilities encompass all aspects of diving, we rarely need to request mutual aid. However, if requested for mutual aid, we would assist in accordance to the agency’s request. Due to our vast capabilities, the requesting agency might consider transferring operational control to allow MDFR to mitigate the incident. ERDI has provided MDFR with a more systematic approach to Public Safety Diving (PSD). They have assisted us with the development of our rapid response model to include recovery and contamination diving. It also allows us to build on our already existing level of training, such as ERD II, Full Face Mask, and Side Mount (RIC Bottle). With ERDI’s uniformity approach to PSD, much of ERDI’s training material, verbiage, and diving skills sets afford us an understanding of surrounding dive teams’ procedures and goals.

On a typical call, what does your team do to prepare for the incident?

It starts with the morning equipment check out, followed by a crew debriefing. There are many times that a crew may not have worked together but can utilize this time to clear up any questions regarding a dive response. Upon initial dispatch of a call, information gathering is essential. The nature of the call, the time of year, time of day, and location of the incident are key elements in determining possible tactics used to facilitate an effective response.

What are your SOGs for aggressive animal encounters, both above and below water? Has MDFR encountered alligators, snakes, or sharks in any of their incidents?

As one would anticipate, South Florida not only has a wide array of cultures but “water residents” as well. A risk assessment analysis is always essential before any dive and this is one of those factors. In all bodies of water there is this possibility, but our job is to take calculated risks. Since the inception of our dive program in 1978, we have never had an incident with an attack on one of our divers. With the amount of noise that either the vehicle entering the water or an apparatus on scene may make, this usually scares any predatory animal away. Fortunately, MDFR Venom One unit handles all animal-related human encounters and has no knowledge of any attack on a Public Safety Diver in our area.

Who prepares or develops your training and equipment maintenance budgets?

The Dive Rescue Bureau that is underneath the Training Division is responsible for preparing all Dive/Surface Water Rescue training curriculum and budgeting for this training. It is then forwarded up the chain of command for approval. The Logistics Division is responsible for budgeting of the equipment, repair, and maintenance of all operational dive equipment.

This is a strenuous and stressful job; what is the average time a dive team member stays on the team?

Some of our members have been on the dive team for over 20 years, but essentially once a firefighter has met the requirements of the dive team, they tend to remain active for the rest of their careers.

Do you feel you have enough dive team members to support the amount of water you are responsible for?

MDFR has 520 certified Public Safety Divers spread across 3 shifts, 2000 square miles of land, and 300 square miles of near shore waters. It is logistically difficult to ensure that coverage is evenly spread out. MDFR does have dedicated units that require them to be staffed with divers in high risk/potential areas such as the Port Miami on the 2 Fireboats and on the 2 Air Rescue Helicopters. Due to the attrition of our divers, increased population density, complexity/nature of dive calls, and an average of 118 dive incidents in which divers were deployed in the water annually, an argument can be made for the need for more certified public safety divers. The development of a strategy to distribute divers evenly across the vastness of our territory is needed as well.

Who is your best resource when you have issues or questions on training requirements or equipment? Who would you call first?

We are fortunate to have individuals on staff with degrees in diving sciences, instructor-level certifications that encompass all aspects of diving, and years of experience in all the diving modalities i.e., military, commercial, recreational, technical, and scientific. With the collaboration of ERDI, it allows the MDFR Dive Rescue Bureau (DRB) to answer the majority of questions in-house with issues pertaining to equipment, training, safety, and certification. If there were a question that we could not solve in-house, we have utilized ERDI as a resource to help solve any questions, even if they had to reach out to one of their vast number of contacts in the PSD community for assistance. The sharing of information and guidance for the betterment of all is the nature of our passion for diving and teaching.

How would one go about starting a dive team?

This is a long and complex question requiring a long list of items, but as it is with all good initiatives, it originally starts with the vision and passion of a single or group of people. For us, we had the good fortune of having Captain Ed Brown lead this endeavor. His foresight and support from countless firefighters helped pave the way for our current dive program. Below are some of the key components in developing a dive program:

  • Determine a needs analysis for such a team
  • Determine the number and types of recourses needed in personnel and equipment
  • Secure funding and support from community leaders and agency management and Union, if applicable
  • Determine team’s mission statement
  • Develop policies and procedures
  • Develop a training curriculum that reflects Public Safety Diving, OSHA, NFPA, and all other industry standards that apply to the type of PSD that support the mission statement
  • Budgeting:
    • Initial and continued training
    • Equipment procurement and equipment maintenance
    • Instructional staff
    • Training facilities
    • Supplementary training cost

These mentioned items just skim the surface of what it will take to create a dive team.

What tends to be the  “favorite” position on the team?

Being primary diver tends to be the preferred position. It allows a diver to put all of their “hands-on” training to work.

What are your most common calls? Your most dreaded call?

Our most common calls tend to be a vehicle in a canal. The most dreaded call would probably be something involving multiple victims. This could entail a school bus full of children or multiple vehicles with multiple victims, such as a bridge collapse or a plane in a body of water.

Thank you to the MDFR for taking the time to answer all these questions and being so candid about it. You said “The sharing of information and guidance for the betterment of all is the nature of our passion for diving and teaching.” and you have proven that here. The answers you have provided will be utilized by many public safety teams around the world.

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