The One Situation Public Safety Diver Training Does Not Prepare You For

By: Harry Averill

All things considered, this guy is lucky to be alive. The odds say and unnecessary death. The catch is, if you attempt a body recovery even one tenth as foolish as what this guy did, odds are you will die. And there is no reason why you have to.

The guy in question was a deputy (a lieutenant, in fact) with a local county sheriff’s department and the head of their dive team. As was all too typical of the times, neither he, nor any of his team members, possessed formal training past a recreational Open Water Diver certification. Today, it’s likely that his department would have invested in comprehensive Public Safety Diver training. But even that would not have prepared him for what he attempted.

The incident involved a geological phenomenon known locally as “The Suckhole” this particular public safety diver should have died a very terrifying death. Located adjacent to a medium-size river, The Suckhole manages to ingest up to 90 percent of the water from the river, only to spit it out a mile downstream. Furthermore, it does so with a force powerful enough to form a swirling vortex like you might see circling your bathtub drain — only this one can be up to 6 m/20 ft across.

Things started when a civilian decided he wanted to see The Suckhole up close and personal. Bad decision. The Suckhole easily swallowed both him and his canoe. The foolishness did not stop there, however.

Onlookers called 9-1-1. The news was passed up the chain of command until it landed on the deputy’s desk. At this point he decided that, based solely on his title as head of the dive team, he should single handedly attempt to recover the victim’s body himself — despite the fact it was lodged in a crack over 130 m/400 ft from the entrance. At an unknown depth. In less than 30 cm/1 ft of visibility and a current that exceeded two knots.

Armed only with a piece of rope, standard recreational dive gear and a single 11-liter aluminum 80, the deputy entered the siphon. And, in what can only be described as one of the most incredible strokes of luck in diving history, he not only managed to find the body, he made it out alive. In so doing, he not only violated virtually every tenet of prudent public safety diving, he also violated every tenet of safe cave diving.

The Most Dangerous Diving on Earth

Since divers first entered underwater caves in the 1950s, more than 400 have perished in the attempt. The vast majority of these incidents involved caves nowhere near as dark and scary as The Suckhole. In fact, most featured exceptional visibility, a modest out flowing current and depths of less than 30 m/100 ft.

Extensive experience in open water offers no protection against the dangers of underwater caves. Many of those who have died there have been scuba instructors and other dive professionals. The one thing nearly all of these accident victims had in common is that they lacked the specialized training and equipment possessed by certified cave divers.

Public safety divers learn to deal with situations and environments that recreational, technical, military and commercial divers do not. These can include zero visibility, contaminated water and extreme risk of entanglement. Public safety divers may also learn to use specialized equipment, such as full-face masks, that other divers do not have access to. Yet none of this training and none of this specialized equipment can adequately prepare public safety divers for the unique risks and hazards inherent in diving overhead environments such as caves and mines.

Given the extensive nature of public safety diver training and the specialized equipment public safety diving teams generally have at their disposal, it’s easy to understand why ERDI-trained divers might feel that, “We are the only ones prepared to do body recoveries — any body recovery. And, if not us, then who?” Unfortunately, that’s a belief that can easily get you killed.

Fortunately, when this sort of situation arises, you are not alone. There is an organization you can turn to; an organization created by law enforcement professionals and trained to work hand in hand with local police, fire, and rescue agencies. That organization is International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery (IUCRR).

What is IUCRR?

IUCRR traces its roots to 1982, when Jacksonville/Duvall County, Florida Sheriff’s Department deputy Lieutenant Henry Nicholson realized there was a need for a team specifically trained and equipped to safely handle body recoveries in underwater caves. This was training and equipment local public safety dive teams did not have and which would have been both expensive and difficult to obtain. It helped that Henry was not only head of his own department’s dive team, he was also an experienced cave diver and a certified Cave Diving Instructor with multiple agencies.

Drawing on his vast experience in police work, Henry put together a team designed from the ground up to work hand in hand with local law enforcement, and only at their specific request and under their direction. It would be the team’s job to perform the recoveries local public safety divers could not do without putting themselves at significant risk.

Although based in north-central Florida, IUCRR operates internationally and has assisted in body recoveries throughout the world. There are IUCRR Regional Coordinators for the USA, Canada, the Caribbean and Central and South America, as well as for Australia, Japan, and countries throughout Europe.

Although no cave diving fatality has ever been proven to be the result of foul play, IUCRR team members are taught to treat every recovery as a potential crime scene. Unless there is a possibility that a missing diver may still be found alive, team members will not perform an extraction until told to do so by the ranking law enforcement official at the scene, and will take care to not only document the recovery on video, but to preserve the chain of custody for any potential evidence.

Working with IUCRR

Should a situation arise in which a diver goes missing in an underwater cave, mine, or similar environment, the first step is to go to the IUCRR website at IUCRR.org. Click on the link labeled Emergency. It will take you to a page with step-by-step procedures to follow and a listing of contact information for each of the Regional Coordinators. All you need to do is contact the closest Regional Coordinator, explain the situation and let him or her activate the nearest recovery team.

As soon as the recovery team arrives on scene, they will seek out the senior law enforcement official on site and coordinate any search and recovery efforts with them. Anything the team does will only be undertaken under the direct supervision of law enforcement or other authorized agency.

IUCRR is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization. It does not charge for its services. Occasionally, local officials will offer to help with international travel arrangements, if needed. As a non-profit organization, that helps; however, IUCRR has never refused to help others in need, regardless of circumstances.

Five Points to Remember

  • Your public safety diver training, no matter how extensive, does not prepare you to search for and recover missing divers in underwater caves, mines, or similar overhead environments.
  • If you attempt such a recovery without the proper training and equipment, there is an excellent possibility you and your team members will die.
  • There is no need for you or any of your public safety diving team members to put themselves at risk, as a unit of highly trained cave recovery specialists is just a phone call away.
  • IUCRR team members are trained to work hand-in-hand with local law enforcement and will do so only at their specific direction.
  • The IUCRR is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization. Taking advantage of their services won’t cost you a dime.

Lean More

If your jurisdiction includes underwater caves, mines, or similar environments, and there is a possibility you may one day need the services of IUCRR, you can get a head start by visiting the IUCRR website and familiarizing yourself with its contents. If you have questions, contact your closest IUCRR Regional Coordinator using the contact info on the website. He or she will be happy to answer them.

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