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Crime Scene Management and the Dive Team’s Role

by Patrick S. O’Boyle:
public safety erdi divers

It’s too often that many of us on public safety dive teams as third (3rd) responders arrive well into rescue operations associated with a submerged incident. Those who are part of integrated municipal departments may not face the same issues since they are part of the first alert, and are part of the first arriving assets to a scene. The management of the “crime scene” needs to be addressed from the dive team perspective, either by the third party agency or an integrated municipal department. This scene management needs to be part of any team’s training regimen.

Without argument, many existing public safety dive teams are volunteers that serve the community very well, either as part of local volunteer fire departments, independent teams of trained public safety divers, rescue squads, or search and recovery teams. Law enforcement dive teams are a large part of the public safety dive team service, and have a strong understanding of this type of crime scene management. In recent months I have worked with sheriffs’ departments on missions and drills and they have agreed – further work is needed among dive teams of all types.

Not long ago, I was asked to critique a Dive Team Challenge hosted by a local law enforcement agency and the dive team support they receive from a third party agency.

The scenario:

A camp scene at the lake, two males, one female, a copious quantity of adult beverages, campfire, tent and outdoor gear, and a remote off-road location adjacent to hiking trails. The sun rose the following day and a group of hikers came across the body of the female in the woods. Law enforcement was called and excellent crime scene management protocols were followed. The camp site was found, with a male sleeping off the night’s consumption of alcohol, some scratches and blood noted upon his person. When detained and questioned, he admitted to killing his two camping mates, one in the woods, and the other in the lake. The local dive team was activated.

Upon arrival of the dive team, they were told to remain clear of both the campsite and the trail to the woods. I watched the boats enter the water, the sonar equipment get activated, gear being assembled, secondary gear being staged, and a full briefing with diver and tender assignments at the edge of the lake just adjacent to the campsite. No scene management was established by the dive team.

I stopped the drill and called the investigating officer and the dive team leader to the observation area. “Is anything wrong so far with this operation?” I asked. I was told by the dive team leader that EMS was called to start medical clearance. This was a good answer but not the one I was looking for (that should have been done at activation). The investigator stated he called for more LEO help. Okay, good again, but not correct. To trigger some previous training that each of these responders is required to have, I used the word HAZMAT. Okay, homerun. They immediately removed the gear, divers, staging, and created a warm zone and hot zones, logs and personnel times, separate entrance/exit areas, and a command structure was implemented.

My point is that we are part of the evidence chain. At times we may need to prompt the agencies already on scene. In my region, the Sheriff’s Department is the command agency on subsurface rescue and recovery. Local first responders arriving first may be operations, and then we set up a dive branch and dive operations. These are all typical NIMS protocols. When operating in rescue mode, these issues are different, but we operate with the Sheriff’s Department and until proven otherwise, consider it as a crime scene, or at least a potential crime scene.

In rescue mode, save the life and operate safely. Once time and conditions change, and the determination to switch to recovery mode is made, step back, consider potential crime scene applications and work with the command structure to contain the scene.

crime scene management diverSome Keys:

  • Create your own warm and hot zone depending on operations (land vs. boat).
  • Have a dive team member become your scribe, document all activity.
  • Request a LEO liaison to be with dive team leader/operations.
  • Operate under your training and protocol; you are in charge of the dive.
  • Take the ERDI Crime Scene Investigation course!

On my team, we recover the victim subsurface in an approved body bag. We also take soil and water samples using sealable laboratory 30ml vials and place them into the body bag. We have received many compliments from crime scene investigators for this little action. They are always impressed. This takes me to another point, if we can impress a crime scene investigator we can take it further.

I am currently working with ERDI Training and the North Carolina Medical Examiner on a medical examiner-approved diver course that will be reviewed in the coming weeks. My goal is to have this available to all teams and delivered by medical examiners and ERDI instructor trainers so that all the effort of our public safety dive teams will be vertically integrated into state Chief Medical Examiner’s Offices and have them influence our protocols. So far it has been received with excitement and a cooperative spirit from each of the states I have contacted. The end result of all subsurface recovery has the strong potential to be an ME case. Let us bring them into our service and work with them as partners so that they see the valuable work we do. It can only make us better teams and servants of the community.

Look for this specialty course in the very near future. I thank ERDI Training, the Medical Examiner’s Office, and Air Hogs Scuba of Garner N.C. for their guidance and assistance getting this to our public safety dive professionals, either paid or volunteer. For my goal is to make us all professionals in our service.

The first step of any dive team is to understand that crime scene management is critical. ERDI takes great effort to provide proper documentation and scene management paperwork to any dive team operating under ERDI training programs. The ERDI Crime Scene Investigation course is the first step toward learning how to secure an operational scene and maintain evidentiary security. Education is the key to operational success and any dive team can do well by partaking in this scene management program.


Patrick S. O’Boyle
APP, Paramedic, DMT, FEMA Medical Specialist, Dive Team Captain, Public Safety DM, NC Death Investigator

The Most Contaminated Dive: Recovering Human Remains

contaminated dive

Photo Credit: Riverside Dive Team

It’s a late Thursday evening, the shift operator at the local sewage plant notices something floating in the first settling pond. Upon closer investigation he discovers that it is a hand… A human hand that still has a ring on its finger. He immediately calls the authorities, when the authorities arrive the investigating process proceeds.

Often as public safety divers we face circumstances that may be dangerous and life threatening; either during the dive, or later when we are at home with our families. The first priority as a public safety diver is our safety and well being. After all there is NEVER a time that two dead bodies are better than one. We should always consider our scope of practice and whether it is within our ability to perform the operation we are considering.

Simple questions to ask ourselves: Is this operation beyond my scope of practice and have I been properly trained for this mission?  Do I have the proper haz-mat equipment to do the job safely? Should this be a commercial dive operation?

Every public safety diver should have a solid foundation in the basics of Boyles Gas Law. It is imperative to have a good understanding of how Boyles Gas Law relates to decomposition of human tissues at depth. Let’s take a look at how these gas laws can affect our recovery efforts. When it comes to recovering human remains from a liquid environment there are several factors to consider. It has been said that a body that is at a depth of greater than 100ft will not surface on its own accord. Simply put, gases will be at four times the pressure at this depth as they would be at the surface.  The total volume of gas at 100ft  is 1/4 of the volume it would be at the surface. The likelihood of gas building at this depth is very unlikely. Depths less than 100ft our recovery efforts become a more complex. Decomposition is able to take place at shallower depths as gas production takes effect in the body.With direct relationship to Boyles Gas Law, the body will begin to lift and make its way to the surface due to the decomposition process within the tissues and  increased gas production. Besides the contamination hazards that exist we will also need to be concerned with the buoyancy characteristics  of tissues after the process of decomposition has occured. The expansion of the body mass due to gas production is now of greater concern and becomes a buoyancy issue that may have direct consequences with our recovery efforts. We must be able to control our ascent to the surface, when recovering a body at depth.

As public safety divers we expose ourselves to environments that are contaminated to varying degrees, whether it be biological, chemical, pesticides, insecticides or other harmful bacterium, the bottom line is this; any body of water must be considered contaminated. We must understand how important it is to protect ourselves against exposure to elements that may be life threatening. The use of the proper protective equipment will significantly lessen the potential risk of exposure. With this in mind, we must protect our mucus membranes as well as our extremities, in order to best accomplish this we should be diving with a full face mask and a dry suit.

I would like to think that most PSD (should we spell out Public Safety Divers here?)dive units are properly trained and understand the importance of using full face masks, with the knowledge and understanding that  90% of our mucus membranes are located on our face. While there are many FFM available on the market today they will all offer some form of contamination protection, some considerations that should be made are as follows. What is the air volume of the mask, and the positive pressures that will allow a greater possibility for water to enter the mask?  Both instances may create buoyancy issues and must certainly be considered. Remember that 1 pint of air is equal to 1 pound of buoyancy,  given the fact that the head of most adults will weigh between 4 and 6 pounds (dry weight) this doesn’t seem to have much of an effect as you are still negatively buoyant. However, this may become an issue within your attached hood. Air that escaped from the mask may become trapped underneath your hood which may cause you to become positively buoyant. A recommendation to consider is the use of hood vents to manage the escaped air from the mask. These hood vents can be installed easily, but the placement of the hood vents is crucial. Observe the FFM you are diving, you will notice where the spider straps position themselves when tightened. Placing a vent on each side near the back, directly on top of the hood, this placement is the best position to manage the air that may get trapped underneath the hood.

It is the belief of at, Public Safety Dive Services, that you should consider any and every body of water a contaminated body of water, especially if you are in search of a victim. If you are diving a dry suit, you should be trained by a professional ERDI dry suit instructor that completely understands and is familiar with the diving environment and the proper equipment required for every situation.

You will have several factors to consider when diving a dry suit, which depend on the style, the material, the thermals you wear, and the fit of your dry suit. One major factor is buoyancy, air trapped within your dry suit is directly related to buoyancy and may create potential hazards. We should be trained to manage the air within our dry suit to prevent emergency situations. Here are a few considerations: Use a properly fitted dry suit. Use the appropriate thermals that will offer optimal thermal protection for the water temperature you are diving. Know and practice proper donning techniques. Know and use proper burping procedures. Be properly weighted, consider using a weight harness system that allows air to move within the suit. Understand and use proper inlet and exhaust air management skills, this will allow useful and important air management that will help with buoyancy. Practice emergency skills that help protect you from injury.

In short, every public safety diver should have a solid foundation in the basics of Boyles Gas Law. We need to know how to manage our personal air supply at depth. It is imperative to know how Boyles Gas Law relates to decomposition of human tissue at depth, and how it affects our recovery efforts.      Public Safety Dive Services offers training that keeps public safety divers as safe as possible.

Public Safety Dive Services
Bo Tibbetts
ERDI Instructor Trainer – 16061

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