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Partnering to Form a Dive Team

Written by Stephenie Slahor

Crime scenes, severe weather, lost people, missing property and accidents all might involve searching underwater. Virtually all jurisdictions have some body of water. Building a dive team is something your department might want to consider, especially if you are fortunate enough to obtain a grant to finance the team, its equipment and/or its training, and fortunate enough to have the help of a good dive shop in your area.

Discussing the best ways to create such a dive team were representatives of Emergency Response Diving International (ERDI) who spoke at the annual Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) meeting in Las Vegas.

ERDI officials Shawn Harrison, Paul Montgomery and Nestor Palermo each have expertise and work experience not only in diving, but also in public safety, especially as it relates to underwater search, rescue, investigation and training. Harrison said public safety dive teams have special needs far beyond those of recreational or commercial diving.

For example, most public safety dive teams need a lot of equipment: drysuits (for extra warmth during long, deep or cold water dives), full face masks, underwater communication systems, buoyancy compensators with tether points or harness systems, extra fins, lift bags, Kevlar ™ gloves, latex gloves for wear under diving gloves, surface-supplied air systems, side scan sonar from a boat, lights, personal floatation devices and cutting tools.

Cameras are also essential for records of investigations and searches. Digital cameras might work, but film cameras and waterproof housing for those cameras may also be necessary, according to Harrison. He said most jurisdictions’ courts require photographic evidence from film, not digital photos.

Meeting these special needs of a dive team can be expedited by having a good working relationship with a reputable dive shop in your area. The dive shop can also arrange training not only in the basic open water diver curriculum, but also in the more advanced training particularly appropriate to the work of the dive team, be it underwater rescue; surface rescue; property recovery; underwater work during cold or ice conditions; or underwater work where snakes, alligators or other potential hazards might exist.

Harrison said it is important to designate a “decision maker” who may or may not be a diver, but who either authorizes the purchases for the team, or “has the ear” of the person who does so. The decision maker can work closely with the dive shop owner so that the team’s needs are met, and both can be involved with the mechanics of grants and the bidding process so that maximum help to the department can be achieved.

For example, the bid process may require specific brand names for equipment, or it might not be brand specific. That might affect how equipment is described or designated for the bid. Point of origin of equipment might also be needed.

Harrison suggested creating a “checklist” with the dive shop to develop courses appropriate to the team’s needs, and to list all the equipment that will be needed by the members of the dive team.

Palermo said that checklist can sometimes be worded in a way that gives the team members some “mix and match” flexibility in their personal choices or preferences for equipment. He pointed out a regulator as an example. That item could be termed an “air delivery system” so that it is not tied to a particular brand or style. Or, a drysuit and full face mask could be classified as “HazMat” items under the terms of a bid or grant application.

Montgomery explained that ERDI is specifically dedicated to public safety diving and is an excellent resource when a department is starting, maintaining or expanding its dive team. ERDI introduced its full curriculum in 2000 at the DEMA show that year, and updated it in 2004.

Various courses cover everything from the basic open water certification, to specialized training in such skills as search patterns, tender skills (those on land or at the surface who supply air or other assistance to the divers), evidence handling of small and large objects, basic crime scene recognition, drysuit and full face mask training, underwater communications, collection of water samples (recommended on each dive for the health and safety of the divers), emergency procedures in the underwater environment, body changes underwater, recovering human remains, basic lift skills with bags, hull searching (overhead environment while underwater), explosive recovery, surface rescue, ice rescue, threat assessment, and specified practice in these skills.

Training of advanced personnel is also a part of ERDI, with courses at the supervisor, instructor and instructor-trainer levels. According to ERDI, it instructs in the skills needed in just about every submerged environment known and helps departments create and maintain their own public safety dive teams. All ERDI courses are OSHA and NFPA compliant.

A dive team will benefit by having more than a few trained divers, but Montgomery said that a team of five ERDI-trained individuals can usually be enough to get things started in your department. This team would include a primary diver and backup, a primary tender and backup, and an incident supervisor. As the team and its needs grow, new divers can be added after they complete the necessary training appropriate to the team.

Harrison pointed out that a public safety agency’s dive team is also a good public relations tool for community outreach and recruitment of sworn and non-sworn members and volunteers. And being that diving is also a sport, the team might want to enjoy, on occasion, some recreational dives. These recreational trips not only encourage others to become divers, but they might also lead to recruiting new members for the dive team.

Partnering with ERDI and your local dive shop is key to creating and growing the team you want and need for your department. For more information, contact ERDI in Maine at (888) 778-9073, (207) 729-4201 and www.tdisdi.com.

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., J.D., writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at drss12@msn.com.

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2010

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