Tom came to me a few days ago wanting to contribute to ThinkingDiver. Tom is a police public safety diver and he’s been diving for 28 years, instructing for 21, and is currently the chief Instructor/TO for his police department’s Underwater Recovery Team. I thought it would be a fascinating read, I am sure you’ll feel the same. Tom has sent me a few other articles which I will publish soon
The following was written by Cpl. Bob Teather RCMP in 1991:
Public Safety Divers are human, believe it or not – just like the rest of us. They come in various sizes and shapes and speak with as many accents and languages as there are lakes and rivers.
Public Safety Divers are found everywhere; in large cities, rural communities and at most departmental budget meetings. The best way to get one is pick up the telephone.
Public Safety Divers deliver lectures, diving equipment and bad news. They?re expected to have the wisdom of King Solomon, the abilities of Superman and the generosity of Santa Claus.
In the movies, Public Safety Divers are easy to spot. You see them hanging from helicopters and cliffs over some treacherous waterfall or rescue scene. In real life, they?re found hanging around near a telephone – even on Sundays, ?cause that?s when it usually rings … just after company has arrived and the barbecue has been lit.
Public Safety Divers are a lot of things. When they make a rescue, they?re heroes. when they complete a body recovery, they?re too late! When they?re paid for their work, they?re doing it for the money … anybody can see that! and when they?re volunteers, they?re crazy ?cause what person in their right mind would volunteer to do a job like that anyway?
Public Safety Divers see more sunrises, sunsets, lakes, rivers, swamps, cesspools and misery than anyone else. Like the mailman, they must be out in all kinds of weather. Their rubber suits change color and materials with the seasons, but their outlook on life remains the same … trying our best and hoping for the day we can make a difference.
Public Safety Divers like hot coffee on cold missions. They also like friendship, laughter and a hearty handshake. They dislike liquor in boats, children without personal flotation devices and drunks that drive their cars into the water.
Public Safety Divers get medals for saving lives, recovering children from icy waters and diving in hazardous conditions. Sometimes their widow gets the medal.
But, after all the sunrises and sunsets, the lakes and the cesspools, the training and the 4:00 a.m. call-outs, once in a while the most rewarding moment comes when the mission is over and out of the crowd a stranger walks up, embraces the Diver and whispers a heart-felt God bless you, and thank you, you have helped.
Bob summed it up greatly in 1991, and he will always be remembered by them, as a good friend, mentor, teacher, and all around great guy. He is sadly missed and fondly remembered by the many thousands of people whose lives he impacted,and changed. Sometimes for the good, and sometimes the bad (putting a felon behind bars), Bob you are sorely missed but ALWAYS remembered!!
And now I will try to take over from where Bob left off, by providing insight into what being a Pubic Safety Diver, in my case a police diver, is like. I’ll try to tell you of the training, the joys, the disappointments, the camaraderie, and the extreme sense of family shared by public safety divers around the world. I’m also adding some photos to give you, the reader, a bit of insight into the practices, training, situations encountered and the joys of the job.
Training to be a PSD is definitely NOT your standard rescue diver course as offered by the various training agencies. PSD work involves recovery, evidence recovery and the chain of custody involved to procure a successful conviction when required, it involves breaking the sad news to families, but at the same time providing much needed closure to those who have lost a loved one. It provides public education on the hazards of work and play around water, trying to educate the public on how to avoid fatal mistakes, and general safe boating and swimming practices.
Training involves black water, swift water, ice, entanglement, recovery methods and procedures, different forms and types of search patterns, the use of SCUBA and surface supplied air operations, how to lift a vehicle, boat, airplane, etc. correctly, at the same time training a diver to be self sufficient underwater should the need arise and you find yourself in “less than optimal” dive conditions. Public safety diving is essentially a solo diver operation for the man in the water but has various backups in place such as a safety diver who is fully suited and ready to go in a moment’s notice, a tender to monitor your tether line , down time, air consumption, dive profile, and help you dress, and the 90% diver as we refer to them, who are on scene fully suited but without SCUBA on or a Surface Supplied System, to provide further back up.
You have to learn the different search patterns involved such as a jack-stay, circle, steady, arc patterns. For ice diving you have your support teams, alternate exits to plan, equipment to set up and configuration to follow. You have to determine what the best thermal protection needed for the job at hand is, and how to choose which is right for the job you are doing. You’ve got to think about whether to use air to inflate your dry-suit with argon, EANx or just compressed air, as well as the possibility of needing Trimix for depth and deco considerations.
The training list is endless.
You learn how to employ various lifting devices such as bags, cables, ropes, and yes occasionally even an extra large tractor inner tube. You learn how to secure a scene, interview witnesses to help with possible/probable locations, how to log evidence, the chain of custody, the emergency communications systems to the surface such as the rope pulls between diver and tender. As a public safety diver you hope to never have to use the 5-5-5- pull which is ” get me up NOW“.
You learn how to properly handle a body underwater, to place it in a body bag while submerged, the correct methods of ensuring that all possible remains are recovered intact.
You also learn the “list” of absolute no-nos in the recovery of human remains and evidence. An example would be a gun recovery that will be used as evidence in a court case, you must NEVER directly bring the weapon to the surface as once the metal touches air the oxidization process begins which could potentially destroy fingerprints or other useful evidence on the weapon. You bag it in the water, including filling the evidence bag with the surrounding water that the item was located in, as this halts the oxidization process, and every body of water has it’s own characteristics, such as the diatoms that are present in the water. These little single celled organisms can be the difference between a successful prosecution, or a case dismissal by the Courts. One always has to remember the chain of custody involved, from their hand, to the tenders, to the evidence tech on the scene, if you happen to have one.
Surprisingly, the difficult aspects about this job are not the various and extreme diving situations and conditions, it is dealing with the grieving family members at a recovery dive, and the most difficult is the recovery of a child.
You have to remember that we the divers are human, and a lot of us have our own children, and it really hits home. It is not uncommon to see a PSD cry at a child’s recovery, and that’s when the camaraderie of the job comes in as we all share each others sorrow’s, and believe me, it is a great feeling to have a fellow team member just come up and put his or her arm around your shoulder and let you know, “I am there for you”.
The second worse is losing a team member on a recovery as that is when the ” what if’s” start to set in, and thankfully most Department’s have a Critical Stress Incident Management team or a councilor you can lean on. Thankfully with the rigorous training PSD’s go through we don’t lose many of our own, but it happens. I remember the case a few years back when a diver from an agency not remotely close to ours lost his life giving closure to a grieving family. This hero was found with his arms still around the victim, his “end of watch” came much to early but his mission was a success, as in his final moment’s he was able to find the missing person and through his death gave closure to the family of the missing teenager.
I would have to say the most rewarding part of the job is being able to give that closure to families, the simple handshakes, the smiles, the thank you’s. We are not in this profession for the monetary or social status boosting some people associate with a PSD, we do it because ” we care” !! I recovered a child’s favorite toy once where gladly no loss of life occurred, and the best “payment” in the world was that little girl running up to me upon seeing her doll and grabbing my still wet leg and hugging it saying,” Mr.policeman, thank you, you saved Shirley”, that alone is one reason I love this job.
PSD diving is far from glamorous!! We dive in some of the worse conditions known to man, in sewers, in hazardous waste spills, in biological event’s where you face risk of catching disease, in black water, in swift water, in freezing condition’s that would make the most hardened Eskimo shiver. In gasoline tanker spills, where getting any of the containment on your skin can cause burns, blindness, etc. This is where you thank your lucky stars that somebody had the know how to invent a positive pressure full face mask and super vulcanized dry suit.
Another downside of the job is the ever current struggle to find funding for training, equipment, seminars, etc.
Most people in the USA and Canada are not aware that most PSD agencies are run by volunteer department’s who rely on public funding and donations. It is only the “luckier” larger Department’s that actually have funding set aside for their Underwater Recovery Team (URT). The countless towns and smaller cities rely on their volunteer teams to provide this service to them and to me THEY are the real heroes, having to rely on their own initiatives to obtain equipment, training, and even storage space.. They hold fundraiser’s, dances, Bar-B-Que’s, etc. to raise funds as these folks are the backbone of the PSD community in little places all over these great countries of Canada and the USA.
The next time your area has a fundraiser, please support it, you never know when or if you’ll be needing the services they can provide.
If you are a diver and want to get involved with this sort of diving contact your local PD, Fire Dept., or EMT stations. They’ll be more than happy to provide you with the information and set you in the right direction. I’m also going to provide you with some links to training agencies that provide PSD training. I myself prefer IADRS, PSDA, and ERDI, but don’t let me influence you. If you are interested in doing this job either professionally or on a volunteer team find an instructor you are comfortable with, has the know-how and experience and will take the time to instruct you to the fullest of your capabilities.
There are leaders in this community of PSD’s that you may have already heard of. I consider these guys to be the cream of the crop, but there are many others out there that are too numerous to list, they know who they are: “Blades” Robinson, Mark Phillips, Bob Kinder, Butch Hendricks. The list is long.
I do hope this has shed some light on the “art” of public safety diving, has enlightened you on the job, and hopefully stirred you to go and make inquiries on how you too can become a member of the “best job in the world”.
Safe diving always!!
Some more links: PSD Diver Monthly | Lee’s Summit Underwater Rescue and Recovery | San Marcos Area Recovery Team (SMART) | South Carolina Public Safety Diver International |Midwest Technical Recovery Team | CPA International Investigations