Diving is a sport that many of us have come to love. In fact, some individuals have taken to diving so well that it has extended into their professional lives. Many of these divers choose to become public safety divers. These types of divers take on the responsibility of diving in harsh conditions to assist others in various ways. The environments in which public safety divers enter may include extreme temperatures or bodies of water that are contaminated in some fashion.
What is contaminated water?
What is contaminated water? The truth is that most open bodies of water are contaminated in some fashion. Oils and fuels from water craft, industrial runoff, and even contaminants from rainwater all tend to build up over time. Contaminated water may contain any biological, chemical, or radiological substance that could harm a diver if he or she comes into contact with the substance. For this reason, public safety divers who dive in contaminated water must dive in an encapsulated fashion. Essentially, the diver is sealed from the water, from head to toe. To accomplish this, dry suits, full face masks, latex hoods, dry gloves, and wrist and neck seals are used.
Contaminated water can affect every member of a dive team. If a tender holds a line without gloves or is splashed by contaminated fluid, he or she is at risk. If contaminated materials are brought into an uncontrolled area, any person who touches dripped fluid or the contaminated item is now at risk. For reasons such as these, every member of a dive team must recognize risk and plan for problem mitigation.
Three primary methods
The three primary methods through which contaminants enter the body are absorption, inhalation, and ingestion. If a diver or team member comes into contact with contaminated fluid, those contaminants may be absorbed into the body through the skin. If a contaminant is airborne, then all team members may be affected simply by breathing. Finally, if a diver or team member gets contaminated fluid in his or her mouth, he or she may swallow or ingest the contaminants.
When dealing with a contaminated body of water, a team must plan. The objective is to perform a task without hurting any team members. The first step is to review the scene and develop a proper plan of approach. If the contaminant is located on the surface, wind patterns may control the movement of contaminants. This factor may allow divers to enter the water upwind and dive under contaminants in a controlled fashion. Essentially, the site must be assessed to provide the greatest level of safety possible for all team members. Even fine details must be remembered. Contaminants such as fuel spills can cause rapid damage to dry suit seals. A team leader must determine if a safe dive is even possible when too many risk factors are present.
Once an entry location is determined, the team must stage the scene to establish control. Zones must be created for clean team personnel, personnel who may encounter contaminants, and an area where decontamination is required. Movement from zone to zone must then also be controlled to ensure safety. Prior to entering a contaminated body of water, a sensible move would be to allow all divers to be checked out by medical personnel. This type of action allows the medical personnel to develop a baseline for secondary checks after diving.
So once operations commence, things progress as normal. Like any public safety dive operation, the divers must be monitored closely and things must take place in a methodical fashion. Once a diver exits the water, the decontamination process must begin. All contaminated water dives should require the diver to exit the water with at least one third of his or her cylinder pressure remaining. Remember that the diver must undergo the decontamination process. He or she cannot simply remove his or her full face mask and return to ambient air without risking contamination. A diver exiting the water must be moved to a controlled area where he or she is then rinsed, scrubbed with decontamination agent, and rinsed again from head to toe. This may require brushes of different types that allow valves, connections, and seals to be cleaned without causing damage. Once the diver has been decontaminated he must be removed from his or her equipment and moved to medical once again where a proper check can be performed against the initial baseline. The fluids and materials used and expelled during the decontamination process must then be captured and moved to a safe location for disposal. In many instances, teams can make use of local fire departments to help with decontamination. All fire fighters have undergone hazardous materials training and departments are almost always equipped to decontaminate personnel as needed. Similarly, something as simple as a child’s yard swimming pool can be used to capture decontamination fluids. The objective is to plan for how you will decontaminate your divers in a safe fashion.
Like any public safety dive, records must be kept in regard to public safety diving. Contaminants pose long term health risks. For this reason, medical check information, data associated with known contaminants, methods for dealing with contaminants, decontamination activities, and even exposure times must be recorded and filed. If a diver becomes ill at a later time, any data such as this may provide assistance to medical professionals, and protect the team from liability. If a diver has entered water known to be contaminated, follow up medical checks may be a sensible action to ensure the health of team members for a period following the dive operation.
Finally, once dive gear has been recovered and gone through initial decontamination, finite cleaning must be performed. Equipment that may still hold contaminants must be laid out and properly cleaned. Cleaning agents such as Dawn and Simple Green can be used to spray all possible contaminated surfaces. Then fine brushes can be used to get into every nook and cranny to further eliminate contaminants. This process is arduous and should be a team-based action to ensure the cleaning process is properly achieved.
Diving in bodies of water known to hold contaminants can be dangerous and problematic. Planning must go into operations of this type and all parties should look for potential hazards and risks to mitigate problems. In this type of diving, all parties must behave as safety officers. One action a team may take is to contact local water testing agencies to have bodies of water in a team’s area of operations tested. Regular testing will give teams a better idea of what contaminants they face and allow those teams to better prepare for potential problems. Again, the goal is for dive team personnel to return home after an operation. Planning is often the only way to achieve this goal.
– Dr. Thomas Powell – Owner/Instructor Trainer – Air Hogs Scuba, Garner, NC