A Typical Scenario
: It is 4 am when the dispatcher turns in the call for a car overturned in the river. Two local firemen who are also divers jump in a pick up truck loaded with the dive gear from yesterday's recreational diving and drive to the scene. Upon arriving they immediately suit up and jump into the river to effect rescue. As soon as they step into the water they notice that the current is much faster than they expected and that the water is much colder. The first diver uses the current and drifts to the car and grabs on, the second diver follows. The first diver crawls inside the open passenger door to search for the victim. As the second diver reaches the car his recreational gear becomes entangled. His weight causes the car to shift and roll in the current. He travels down stream in the current and catches an overhanging tree branch. The first diver is effectively trapped in the car only three feet from the surface. When public safety officials arrive they immediately commence a surface rescue procedure to retrieve the second would be rescuer from the tree branch. They also called for a dive team from a neighboring county to rescue the diver in the car. Unfortunately by the time the dive team arrives their rescue is a body recovery. The driver of the car comes back to the scene with the Highway Patrol Officer just as they pull the body of the first diver from the water. The driver had escaped from the vehicle and walked to a neighboring house to call the Highway Patrol.
The efforts of these well intentioned but under trained divers resulted in a needless fatality and putting numerous other professionals at needless risk. The scene portrayed here is fiction, but, scenes like it happen every year. The reason is not really a lack of training, that is a symptom. The real reason is the failure of administrators to realize the need for specialized training and equipment in the field of Public Safety Diving.
Before starting a dive team, each department must weigh the cost of accomplishing the task properly versus the benefit for the community. What will your community gain? Are other resources available to accomplish the same goals. If you decide a dive team is necessary then please decide to adequately equip and train that team.
Do you need Public Safety Training?
Diving is a specialized activity taking place in a hazardous environment. That is why even recreational divers require certification to access equipment, air fills and dive sites. That recreational certification (called open water) qualifies divers to dive in reasonably calm, clear conditions at depths not to exceed 60 feet. In the recreational diving industry that certification is frequently referred to as a permit to learn, just as a learner's permit is issued to a person completing high school drivers education. We do not allow the learning permitee to drive without supervision, much less operate an emergency vehicle in route to an accident or fire scene. Yet many departments feel that open water training qualifies the diver to dive in the hazardous environments encountered by the Public Safety Dive Team.
Many teams have fallen victim to the Rescue Diver Certification farce. Recognizing the need for additional training the administrator seeks out "professional assistance" from the local dive store. The dive store instructor provides all that he is able to provide, a recreational certification as a Rescue Diver. Most recreational training agencies define their Rescue Diver Course as a self and buddy rescue program. This is adequate for helping your buddy who gets in trouble at 45 feet on the coral reef in the Keys, but not much assistance in the Public Safety Environment.
The diving environment qualifies in every area as a HAZMAT site. Add fuels and oils from a submerged vehicle and we have put multiple hazardous chemicals around the diver. Additionally, those chemicals will destroy the divers life support system if they are inadequate for the job. Place the diver inside the vehicle to do a recovery and we have added confined space rescue in a HAZMAT environment to the picture. How many department administrators would take a person off the street with no formal training and place them in that situation above water? Applied to other areas, imagine taking a person off the sidewalk handing them bunker gear and sending them into a burning building or sending a person to do hostage negotiation with only the information found in over the counter magazines. Yet, almost daily departments do just that with department dive team members or even bystanders that happen to dive. Is this an invitation to disaster? Should you ask the members of your department to accept or even volunteer to be a part of this potential disaster?
So how do you select and understand the type of training you are getting?
When contracting the initial training for your dive team you will probably be limited to two sources - sport certification instructors and agencies that specialize in training public safety divers. The other limited but possible resource is technical agency instructors with specialized experience in rescue operations. The advantage to sport instruction is cost and availability. The drawback is an instructional program which generally prohibits the training of professional diving activities or any diving activity outside the traditional recreational limits. The training focuses on avoiding the situations the public safety diver will encounter on 90% of all calls. Additionally the instructor probably lacks any public safety experience.
From a liability perspective, this may place the department in an indefensible position if training is questioned. From a safety perspective we have created an accident waiting for a scene. These factors are addressed by hiring public safety diving instructional specialist with verifiable credentials and experience. The drawback is availability, since local resources frequently don't exist. That lack of availability will probably increase cost. The department must decide if the increased safety and reduced liability are worth a few extra dollars. That is part of the team's obligation.
How do you qualify the instructor?
The first question to ask is what are the instructor’s qualifications? What technical, rescue or public safety diving certification courses can the instructor teach? Are those courses certified through a recreational training agency? If so, does the agency also endorse the training of professional public safety divers? Is the training NFPA and OSHA compliant (not compliant with some perceived provisional exemption!)?
Next, contact the certifying agency of the instructor. Ascertain:
- Does the agency endorse the training of professional or commercial divers for Public Safety Operations;
- Does the instructor’s insurance cover him for teaching these types of activities;
- If the agency finds that their training is questioned in court does the certifying agency have any training standard or provision which would indicate the Public Safety Diver was diving beyond the realm of his certification and training;
- You may also want to verify the certification level and reputation of the specific instructor with whom you are dealing.