Public Safety Diving Lessons Learned from Recovery Operation

by Eric Brooks, SDI/TDI/ERDI Instructor Trainer #8699:
##On September 5, 2014 the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Dive Team was called out to assist Graham County Sheriff’s Office with the recovery of a potential drowning victim. The mission (as described in a news brief written by Sgt. Ursula Ritchie) lead to the successful recovery of a 26-year-old male who failed to complete the swim across the lake. A debriefing and eventual after-action report emphasized several lessons learned from the dive mission. Those lessons and their potential benefits to future missions are the focus of this article.

The mission consisted of setting up an inflatable raft 100 feet off shore of the boat ramp to use as a dive platform to search the area between 100 and 200 feet from shore, and deploying a second diver to search the area from shore to 100 feet out (to the raft). Dive team one consisted of ERD Instructor Bill Jordan and two ERD tenders Mike Turner and Wayne Hughes (who would act as the tender for the backup diver, ERD Instructor Trainer Eric Brooks). Their mission would be to search the far area using the raft as a dive platform Dive team two consisted of Eric Williams, Dominic Epps and Scott Schneeweis. Their mission would be to search the area between the boat ramp and the raft. Additionally, ERD tender Travis Chesna and Graham County SAR member Tom Sawyer operated the team’s dive boat, and acted as the mission safety officers and team shuttle. After diver number two got tangled in the raft anchor line, his search pattern was reduced to prevent further entanglement. Once both divers completed their initial search of their assigned areas, backup diver Brooks deployed to search the area around the raft anchor that had been an obstacle to diver Williams. The search around the anchor eventually lead to the recovery of the victim.

What lessons can be learned from this mission? First and foremost, it is important to utilize all members of your dive team in the planning process. By discussing the “plan” and asking junior/new members of the dive team how they think the mission should be run, you give them a chance to think through the process. This will become more beneficial on future missions as their experience, training and skills improve and they become ready to run missions on their own. This type of experience helps to build confidence and gives team members situations to draw from to use for future missions. Additionally, utilizing all of the members on the team helps to keep interest. CCSAR is a volunteer dive team. Having members take an active role in the mission keeps them interested and excited about future trainings and diving opportunities.

The second lesson learned deals directly with the search area. Having documentation on what areas were searched and what areas need to be researched is important so that areas are not missed. With this specific mission, the second dive team had an issue in their search area and it was decided to proceed, omitting the problem area, and then returning to it at a later time when the anchor could be removed. As it turned out the victim was in the problem area. Our team uses a backup tender to map the dive area using a form developed specifically for this purpose (see attached photo). With multiple search areas, the incident commander in conjunction with the dive team leader can look at all of the mapped searched areas and determine if any area was missed, or poorly searched. In this particular mission it was important to completely eliminate the first 200 feet from the boat ramp out towards the middle of the lake before moving the operation farther from shore. Additionally, these maps could become part of the chain of evidence in a trial, and therefore, should be signed by the cartographer and kept on file.

The third lesson learned involves diver training and staying current in your dive skills (and tether line communications). As it turns out one of the divers who showed up to the mission was not allowed to dive because of a lapse in his training. He was given support duties and at the end of the mission, he was allowed to dive to refresh his skills in order to become reactivated. As it turned out he was unable to successfully complete his refresher and it became apparent that the call to not allow him to dive was the right call. On that same note, divers and tenders need to practice their line communication, as these are perishable skills. We utilized full-face masks with communications, but our team is still trying to work out some of the bugs with our units, so we actually dive using both line pulls and voice communications. The point here is that it is important for team members to stay current with line signal just in case voice communications becomes inoperable. (We have also planned a future training session to work on our voice communication issues.)

With the successful completion of a mission and/or training it is important for dive teams to assess the lessons learned during these events. These lessons can become the focus of future training sessions as well as key factors to remember when conducting actual dive missions in order to make them safer and more successful.

Eric Brooks is the owner of ProTech Scuba LLC and an SDI/TDI/ERDI Instructor Trainer. He has been a volunteer member of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue since 1999. For questions and/or comments about the article or becoming an ERD Instructor you can email him at