Recovering Evidence at Depth

by Dr. Thomas W. Powell:2 PS Divers recovering evidence

Evidence recovery is a primary function for almost all public safety dive teams in the United States. Team members often hope to be available to perform rescues or bring closure to families, but in truth, dive teams are frequently called in to look for evidence that may assist in a legal case. In many of these cases, law enforcement personnel have exhausted all other options and require a sub-surface team to search where others cannot. Essentially, a dive teams’ skills in regards to sub-surface evidence collection may be responsible for solving a case, or conversely, letting it slip through a detectives fingers.

Law enforcement officers are trained to handle evidence, and follow chain-of-evidence custody procedures to ensure any recovered items are handled in a manner that may allow those items to be admissible in a court room. The reality is that many dive teams are not made up of law enforcement personnel. In recent years, Emergency Response Diving International (ERDI) has made an effort to develop classes designed to better train public safety divers to follow chain-of-evidence protocols, and ensure proper evidence collection procedures. These efforts are apparent within courses such as the Underwater Crime Scene Investigation program. The objective of these types of courses is to train any public safety diver to document and handle evidence in a manner that follows standards required by law enforcement personnel and/or crime scene investigators.

Evidence collection is a process that can be time consuming and task heavy. First, team leaders and tenders must monitor dive times, gas consumption, and diver safety. Divers must be prepared to find, mark, and document any item. The location of an item must be mapped and documented, and any evidentiary photos or videos must be recorded. These actions take time, and can cause a diver to expend gas and energy. These levels of expenditure can create dangerous situations, which further demand attention from leadership and support personnel in regards to monitoring the safety of any sub-surface team member.

Deep diving brings complications into the process of evidence collection and recovery. Deeper depths and the possibility of more dangerous environments further reduce dive times. Similarly, gas may be consumed at a higher rate and physical exertion may increase due to mental distress or the potential effects of deeper water. Dive team leaders must plan and train for scenarios such as this, especially if the dive team is willing to take on any mission regarding evidence collection at deeper depths.

Dive team operating procedures must be developed for different types of missions at various depths. Essentially, if a diver consumes gas at such a rate that a 20 minute dive at 25 feet allows for enough remaining gas to return to the surface, deal with any minor foreseeable issues, and undergo decontamination, that same diver must be restricted to a shorter dive at deeper depths to account for increased gas consumption. The team must also plan for back-up or secondary divers to be prepared to complete any tasks not completed by the initial diver(s). If an item must be recovered that requires a heavy-lift capability, or lift bags, the team must also plan for the extra equipment, set-up time, and controlled actions to ensure essential evidence is not destroyed in the recovery process. These actions and processes must be streamlined.

Evidence collection is a process that can be tedious, but can also provide information that otherwise would not be available. Dive teams must take the time to understand the evidence collection process, and then practice this process until actions become fluid and methodical. In many cases, one might want to involve local law enforcement crime scene investigators in training operations. Personnel of this type may even be invited to participate in an awareness-level ERDI class to better understand how a dive team performs actions underwater. Finally, teams must also recognize where problems can occur and plan out emergency scenarios. No evidence is worth the life of a diver. If a team develops standards, practices those standards, and follows the evidentiary guidelines maintained by law enforcement departments, sub-surface evidence collection can be a valuable capability maintained by any public safety diving unit.

PS Divers at depth2 PS Divers

-Dr. Thomas Powell – Owner/Instructor Trainer at Air Hogs Scuba in Garner, NC

Deep Diving is an Experience, Not Just a Number

by Dr. Thomas W. Powell:

TDI Diver Bill Mac

photo credit: Bill Mac

In the diving world, a unique few choose to push their personal limits. This may include diving deeper, penetrating wrecks, or even diving with advanced equipment. With that being said, one may view going deeper as setting a new depth record. While some divers want to set private or universal depth records, most divers choose to go deeper for the experience. They may be seeking to discover what exists at depth, or they may want to see a wreck that sits outside of recreational diving limits. The truth of the matter is, actual depth is often not the real objective. Instead, depth is a factor the diver must understand and recognize during planning. Divers who love this sport focus on the experience, not just a number.

Despite technical diving being a complex realm, any diver can enter into it. However, one must keep in mind, factors such as the equipment, training, planning, and even price tags are different. These changes are all part of the “deep experience.” To begin, one must look at the equipment. Deep or technical divers often need more gas, bottles with mixed gas, multiple regulators, items like manifolds and doubles bands, mixed gas computers, side-slung or side-mounted cylinders, and redundancies across the board. This need for gear leads each individual diver to search for what works best for them, in regards to the most desirable items and their configuration.

Second, a diver seeking to go deeper and have more technical experiences may(should) seek out advanced training. This training introduces mixed gases, extended range capabilities, equipment configurations, as well as oxygen-based physiology and how it relates to decompression. To accomplish this training, a diver will often research what facilities and instructors he or she can best learn from. (Find a TDI Facility/Instructor here) This again, is all part of the “deep-diving experience.” Dive professionals and dive shop owners must remember that the experience does not just take place underwater. If the dive professionals involved work to provide the best possible experience, the diver will remain happy, the business may recognize more profit, and that same diver may become a loyal customer.

Third, the planning changes for the deep/technical diver when compared to recreational diving. During training, technical divers learn that emergencies may involve hard or soft ceilings. For this reason, the diver must learn how to “bail out,” or safely return to the surface using gasses carried to depth. This need requires the diver and his partner or team to develop a bailout plan for specified depths throughout the dive. If an instructor teaches the diver to be competent and comfortable in this task, the diver is more likely to enjoy it, and look forward to planning deeper dives. Again, quality and competent training will build a better diver who seeks to actively use the knowledge he or she has gained

Fourth, the price tag associated with technical diving can grow in comparison to the prices seen in recreational diving. The experience provided by instructors, boat operators, shop owners, and even other divers will make the expenditures less painful. However, if the diver develops a passion for technical diving, then the cost is justified.

Finally, technical diving skills open up a whole new world for divers. The diver can go places and see things that other divers may not have the knowledge or capability to safely see. Hidden wrecks, deeper marine life, and unique underwater formations become available for technical divers. In certain cases and with proper training, technical divers may even be able to explore places that others have never ventured. “Deep” is a factor related to technical diving, but only part of the overall experience.

Technical divers maintain a certain pride factor within their personalities. They have taken a step that few others choose to take, and for this reason, they enjoy the adventure of deeper technical dives. They also enjoy using complex planning and specified gas mixes to get to these deeper depths. Rather than just enjoying the marine life, diving becomes a complex adventure that demands close attention to detail, extensive planning, and thorough training. If the journey is positive from start to finish, the diver will get the complete experience. This “experience” is what keeps divers wet and encourages them to move forward within the world of scuba.

– Dr. Thomas W. Powell, Owner/Instructor Trainer – Air Hogs Scuba, Garner, NC

Speeding up Decompression – Tips & Tricks

by Dr. Thomas W. Powell:

2 trimmed divers in deco

photo credit: Thaddius Bedford

For the technical diver, decompression is an event that cannot be avoided. To go deep, and stay longer on an open circuit rig, you are going to go beyond your no decompression limits. With this requirement being recognized, decompression periods can be tedious and long, depending on the type of diving performed by the diver. The reality is that an individual cannot reduce decompression stop times without altering a dive plan. To make decompression periods more enjoyable however, a diver can find various activities to pass the time in an efficient and useful manner.

Some ideas for expediting a decompression stop may include:

  1. The first action a technical diver can perform during a decompression stop involves working on skills. This is a good time to set a line marker as a visual reference and practice skills like hovering, trimming out, and even kick styles like the back kick. A decompression stop is a period during which a diver must stay at a certain depth on a certain gas. The objective is to stay at a specific depth, which makes hovering in a trimmed out position a great skill to practice. For this reason, the time should not be wasted, and it is a perfect opportunity to work on becoming a better diver.
  2. Second, a diver may enjoy certain modern advances in technology. This may seem excessive, but I was recently speaking to a dive professional and rebreather diver who watched his students on a decompression stop. They gathered iPads in waterproof cases, and from their decompression staging location, began to read. They had literally prepped their equipment to allow them to read books while waiting out a decompression cycle. This may seem to break from the idea of, “getting away from it all while underwater,” but it is an effective means of passing time during a decompression stop in an enjoyable manner.
  3. The third way for a diver to pass the time during a decompression stop is through exercise. Most divers recognize that strenuous exercise during a descent or dive can cause an elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, and therefore and faster on-gassing. Conversely, the Divers Alert Network (2014) states that exercise during decompression stops can aid in the off-gassing of inert gasses. Essentially, light exercise can increase your body’s ability to decompress. Despite this factor, the exercise performed must be mild. The Divers Alert Network also states that too much exercise can cause bubble formation, similar to shaking a soda bottle. This bubble formation can be problematic, and put the diver at risk. A safe and effective example is swimming around the line while working on trim.
  4. Fourth, a diver can play a game with his or her buddy or team. This could be something pre-planned using wet notes or some form of game (like cards) left at the decompression stop location during descent. A game will focus the mind and pass time in an efficient manner. This type of activity can also allow for work on hovering skills. If the divers involved are trimmed out, holding cards, and monitoring the actions of others while maintaining depth, the divers are both having fun and practicing skills.
  5. This final method for speeding up decompression stops involves the ultimate activity for a technical diver. An individual can begin planning out a future dive. Essentially, the diver can even plan a future dive to the same location, planning times at depth, bailout procedures, and gas requirements on his or her wet notes. This action would actually make the best use of time and allow the diver to hone his or her skills at working tables and math problems on the fly, underwater.

Divers always seem to be looking for fun and excitement at every turn. This desire is magnified in technical divers. Decompression stops are a necessary break required any time a diver passes his or her no decompression limit, especially if this passage is performed on purpose in a technical plan. If a diver must take a deco stop, the time can be used in an effort to improve personal skills while enjoying his or herself. The reality is that a diver must determine what works best for his or her own personal needs. The goal is to be safe, enjoy the sport, and pass the time in the best manner possible.

Dr. Thomas W. Powell – Owner/Instructor Trainer (SDI/TDI/ERDI) – Air Hogs Scuba, Garner, NC

How to Stay Out of Deco for Deep Dives

by Dr. Thomas Powell:

deep diver by reef

photo credit: Ray Bullion

Diving is a unique sport that can capture the hearts and interests of people of all sorts. For many, the urge to go further, learn more, and in some cases go deeper, will keep divers in the water. The problem with this mindset is, some people may push too hard, or go too far out of excitement or even bravado. These factors suggest that any and all recreational divers, at any level, must remember that one of our biggest objectives is to avoid decompression requirements unless we plan for them. Venturing beyond your no decompression limit (NDL) is a risk that any diver faces if he or she does not monitor their instruments and the overall situation.

To avoid this potential life-threatening problem of passing your NDL, there are various actions a diver can take.

Learn your computer! – Almost every computer today comes with bells, whistles, and alarms to let a diver know when a problem has occurred, or when the diver is approaching a problematic scenario. There is no excuse for any diver failing to learn the proper use of his or her computer. The computer is an essential item required for all SDI/TDI/ERDI divers. When lights flash or numbers change, the diver needs to know what this information means. Learning to properly read your computer and react to what it says, will help a diver get wet the next day. Similarly, the computer will track time as the diver approaches his or her NDL. This easily recognizable data can allow a diver to avoid crossing that threshold and going into a scenario requiring decompression.

Create a game – Take the time to use the information displayed on your computer to create a game. Monitor data, set goals, set limits, or even follow display data in a manner that forces you to look at your computer or gauges every short period. This action will force you to see your display and recognize information. A task as simple as this can force a diver to see NDLs approach or problems arise.

Make a deal with your buddy to check each other – Prior to any deep dive (or any dive for that matter), a diver can establish a plan with his or her buddy to check each other’s computers or gauges every so often. This action will ensure each diver has a redundant data check periodically. As NDLs are approached, and if a diver misses this information, the buddy may recognize the issue before problems arise.

Monitor your surroundings – Computers and gauges can tell us our depth. Despite this factor, if color changes or environmental factors alter, you may have drifted a bit deeper than planned and not yet noticed on your computer. Even if you plan to dive deep, we all know that going deeper will reduce your possible bottom time and therefore, your NDL. Pay attention to where you are, and use these observations to create a mental reference to check your computer.

Map out your plan in advance – Our training teaches us to plan deep dives in advance. Prior to any dive, set a route, walk through your objectives with your buddy(ies), and plan for possible problems. If you and your buddy set limits for max depth and understand your probable route, you may be able to foresee potential problems, or recognize when your buddy deviates from the proposed plan. Understanding when and where your team should be, will help all parties associated better pre-plan for avoiding NDLs.

The goal of any dive should be to have a good time, accomplish possible objectives, and be able to dive tomorrow. When we fail to meet these goals, bad things can happen and life-threatening problems may arise. As divers and dive professionals, we need to understand our actions, and ensure safety throughout a lifetime of enjoyment, no matter how deep someone chooses to go.

Dr. Thomas Powell – Owner/Instructor Trainer (SDI/TDI/ERDI) for Air Hogs Scuba, Garner, NC

Are You Prepared to go to Court?

by Thomas Powell:
testifying in court

In March of 2014, a simulated body recovery exercise near the east coast of North Carolina brought a concern to light for many dive teams that do not involve sworn law enforcement divers. On the day of the exercise, two senior detectives associated with a local Sheriff’s Department were working with a local search and rescue dive team for the first time. The two detectives were largely unaware of dive team operating procedures, and the dive team had not spent any considerable length of time training to adapt to the needs of Sheriff’s Department representatives. As lead crime scene investigators, the detectives, expressed worry about volunteer divers having to face an attorney in a courtroom with regard to evidence recovery and crime scene security.

Sworn law enforcement personnel are trained to deal with crime scene procedures and to follow evidence recovery protocols. Those sworn officers, deputies, or agents are then taught how to present information to a court room or court official in an honest and proper method. In a similar fashion, dive teams are taught to follow basic standards that must then be adapted to local needs and historical precedence. The problem is that many volunteer dive team members have never had to sit before a court room or defense attorney looking for problems associated with dive team actions. In most cases, volunteer divers have never even been trained on how to handle a court room scenario.

A court room can be a scary place. A defense attorney may seek to ruin a diver’s credibility, or find issues related to operational procedures. No dive team member wants to let the “bad guy” get away, or harm the credible image of his or her dive team. For this reason, a diver may crack under pressure, or become a problematic witness. Imagine you are a 19 year old volunteer who has joined a dive team in an effort to help your community and protect the people you love. You work hard, learn as much as you can, always show up, and establish true team dedication. Then one day you are the person who is tasked with recovering a child murder victim, surrounded by potential evidence, at 20 feet in zero-visibility water. You do your best and follow every standard you have learned in a methodical fashion. At the end of the day, your team and the local law enforcement representatives are proud of you and your actions.

Now fast-forward six months to a local court room where the evidence you collected helped bring a “bad guy” before the legal system. The defense attorney begins to question your methods. What did you miss because you could not see? What have you forgotten after six months of time? The attorney makes you question your skills and what you accomplished. Your concern begins to show before the jury, and you grow visibly upset because you know you did your best and now someone is questioning your abilities. This scenario could lead to the elimination of evidence and the release of a person who may have been truly guilty. This is a scenario that must be avoided if at all possible.

To compensate for a lack of basic education, the ERDI Testifying in Court program was developed to help any public safety diver be better prepared for a court room experience. This program helps a diver understand what may happen, how to dress when testifying, and even how to speak to the attorneys or a jury. A dive team must remember that this course is a fantastic preparatory tool, but then the divers must take a further step. The information learned in the Testifying in Court program must be practiced. Divers must work with leadership to cover the types of knowledge needed for a court room scenario, and then run through simulated practice scenarios to ensure diver comfort and ability when facing a real attorney.

Now go back to the court room in which you, the 19 year old volunteer was testifying. Imagine you are well-dressed and prepared with organized notes covering your actions and activities during your recovery operation. With each question, you are able to provide a confident and honest response that explains why and how you performed specific tasks. When you leave the court room that day, you know you were able to represent your team and your actions in the best manner possible. This secondary scenario is also one that would leave any diver more confident in relation to testifying during future court room scenarios.

A dive team of any sort must always be prepared to defend its actions. Data must be maintained as well as any information regarding activities, evidence collection, and scene operations. Prior to a court case, this information must be pulled and reviewed. Every step must be taken to ensure that any diver being asked to appear before court is confident, prepared, and supported in every possible fashion. To begin this process, the ERDI Testifying in Court program is an awareness-level course that can be used to better educate divers and prepare them for any court room experience that they may have never entertained before.

Thomas Powell
Instructor Trainer – Air Hogs Scuba

Helitrox for PS Diving – Clear Head, Clear Mind in Deep Recoveries?

by Thomas Powell

Thomas Powell PSD Training photo

In the public safety world, gas fills can become complicated. Fire stations must follow OSHA regulations, and fill station operators require training that is not required in standard dive shop environments. If a person were to speak to most current dive team leaders in the United States, they would insist that mixed gasses of any sort, and even basic nitrox, are not allowed in public safety diving programs. Extensive research will show that, in the majority of cases, there are no standing rules preventing the use of nitrox or mixed gas. The reality is that not every public safety dive team has easy access to a fill station. The difficulty acquiring basic air scares team leaders and oversight bodies away from the complications of obtaining gasses that may be even harder, and more expensive, to acquire.

Helitrox is a breathing gas made up of nitrogen, helium, and oxygen. The proper mixtures of these gasses can allow a diver to function and operate at depths beyond the range of standard air fills. In the modern world helitrox is often used by technical divers or commercial divers undergoing complex and often deeper dive activities. To perform technical dives using helitrox, a diver must understand the physiology associated with how the gas can affect the human body underwater, and how to plan for a dive that may involve soft or hard ceilings. To date, advanced mixed gasses have rarely been used in public safety dive training programs or operations. Despite this fact, roughly one year ago, the entire world saw a group of commercial divers, diving helitrox, recover a man who had been submerged in a trapped shipwreck for three days. The gas being used allowed divers to remain underwater and perform an unplanned recovery.

The United States is bordered by two major oceans and consists of a vast number of deep waterways within her interior. When looking at these bodies of water, operational dive teams must recognize that one day they may be called to perform a recovery, or even a rescue, at depth. Imagine that a diver has been trapped at depth while diving helitrox. If a rescue is possible, the team performing the operation must understand the physiology associated with the gas being inspired by the victim. This knowledge will allow the dive team involved to best plan a rescue and return to the surface that does not exacerbate already existing problems.

Similarly, certain bodies of water in the United States exist at altitude. This factor makes even recovery operations go off standard “table diving” scenarios. Essentially, a one hundred foot (deep) recovery dive may be converted to a deeper theoretical depth based on altitude. This factor suggests that divers at altitude may be safer if they have a good knowledge base and understanding of how to use mixed gasses. One of the most interesting things to do with a diver is to let them do comparison dives between helitrox and air. Essentially, let the diver do a dive on helitrox and then later do a dive on air. Then have the diver determine which dive is more memorable. The helitrox dive will be better remembered. This scenario shows that helitrox allows a diver to remain more “clear-headed.”

In the world of public safety diving, being clear-headed and cognizant of all operational activities could save a life. These divers already perform activities in near-zero visibility using a sense of touch. If a problem arises, a clear-headed diver may be more prepared to correct issues or solve problems. Similarly, a clear-headed diver may better remember dive-related details essential to a courtroom scenario.

There is no reason for a dive team to avoid gaining improved levels of knowledge. In many cases, leadership personnel will establish a goal for public safety dive teams. This goal may be the completion of a course such as ERD II. Once that goal is achieved, leadership often turns to team status maintenance. New divers get trained, and current divers do in-service training. This mindset often leads to a lack of focus and the establishment of a normal routine. Education requires a break from this routine and a focus on continued improvement. Even if a dive team does not dive mixed gasses on a regular basis, an understanding of the related dive theory will help dive team members better acknowledge how gas can affect the human body.

Mixed gas diving requires strong education and a focus on learning how to be safe at deeper depths. Despite this, helitrox can allow emergency response divers to perform activities for longer periods, with clearer minds, at deeper depths. A dive team must determine if mixed gas diving could play a role within its territory, and then consider if the team wishes to be available for extended range calls for help in an area exceeding local territory boundaries. At altitude, helitrox diving may be essential to remain safe. Closer to sea level, helitrox diving may be an activity that is beyond the skills set desired by a team. Team leaders must work to make the best decisions possible in regard to team capabilities and knowledge bases.

In North Carolina, the staff at Air Hogs Scuba is working with various dive teams to begin developing a better understanding (for team members) of how gas affects the human body. Three teams are currently working through the TDI Nitrox program as a starting point. The objective is to learn the math, and better understand how to draw personal conclusions regarding how to dive differing gas mixtures. This course is the entry-point for dive teams considering mixed-gas response capabilities. No dive team should turn down educational opportunities provided within reasonable parameters, and helitrox has its place in public safety diving. The reality is that teams have to make the move to become more educated and step outside normal training parameters. Actions of this type will give dive teams greater capabilities, and an improved potential for performing operational activities in expanded environments.

-Thomas Powell
Owner/Instructor Trainer – Air Hogs Scuba

Educating Public Safety Dive Teams Year Around at Air Hogs Scuba

Air Hogs Scuba Pool Training

Most divers seem to believe that the winter months of the year are a time to relax by the fire and enjoy time indoors. Conversely, a small number of divers realize this is the perfect time of year to prepare for the worst possible conditions. Around the United States, public safety dive teams, both volunteer and professional, take to the water. Icy conditions, cold wind, and bulky equipment do not stop these men and women from working hard to be prepared to help others in need.

Dive shops are the backbone of public safety dive teams. In many cases, shops provide the gear (via retail sales), the training, consultation, and general support. At Air Hogs Scuba, in Garner, North Carolina, the training staff has dedicated a large portion of time and effort toward helping public safety dive team members be the best divers they can be. Air Hogs Scuba runs public safety training programs year round in an effort to upgrade team qualifications and to keep dive teams in the water. Long breaks and time out of the water do not help teams retain skill sets and knowledge.

Each January, Air Hogs Scuba runs ERD Dry Suit Ops and ERD Full Face Ops programs to ensure divers can handle dry diving and basic encapsulation when it really matters. Similarly, the shop begins an annual fitness progression and evaluation program for any team willing to participate. From that point forward, the teams always dive dry and in full-face units for future classes. Essentially, divers and teams are better prepared to enter into ERD 1 and 2 or Tender classes, as well as other programs such as contaminated water or swift water. To capitalize on success, the shop has brought together a group of ERDI professionals to handle their needs and the recognized needs of dive teams. Two of these individuals are ERDI Instructor Trainers. In 2014, Thomas Powell, Josh Norris, Darrell Adams, and Rob Bradish combined teaching abilities and shared resources to find ways to better benefit public safety dive teams in North Carolina. This action has led to new programs, shared skill sets, mutual aid between teams, team interactions on an increased level, and improved teaching success. The goal for Air Hogs Scuba (in regard to public safety divers) has become: to better educate divers and improve their capabilities in the realm of emergency response operations.

ERDI programs are designed to teach divers how to be safe, responsible, effective, and skilled during any response operation. The other factors that should be noted in regard to ERDI are the OSHA and NFPA regulations with which they comply. These compliance actions taken by ERDI during program development help teams and departments avoid liability by following certain regulations during both training and operational activities. This is the biggest recognition that sells ERDI classes to dive teams. Companies such as Air Hogs Scuba work to sell the best class possible, while showing teams how to best protect their assets.

Teaching programs at Air Hogs Scuba have become more in-depth, and outside resources are being utilized. ERDI programs are being taught in conjunction with classes provided by the Office of the State Fire Marshall to improve knowledge and understanding based on regional needs. The North Carolina State Justice Academy has even offered a professional certificate for divers who achieve certain public safety diving academic accomplishments. These actions have ensured dive teams recognize the added benefit and value that can be professionally rooted in any ERDI program.

The goal of any public safety dive program within a dive business should be to improve knowledge and the overall skill sets maintained by the divers with which the business works. Well-educated, skilled divers ensure safer response scenarios and improved outcomes. ERDI has provided the avenue through which this goal can be achieved. Dive shops must simply find the best way to make use of the provided resources and help their local communities.

by Thomas Powell Air Hogs Scuba