How to Start a Dive Team

There are all sorts of things that can take place in or hide in bodies of water. Some will be the result of criminal actions; some will be accidental. Many will require police to respond in order to recover evidence or further an investigation, and this requires personnel specially trained and equipped for such duty: a dive team.

Since nearly 75 percent of the earth is covered by water, population centers big and small tend to be located close to various sources of this very necessary element. Unlike fish, however, humans don’t live in water and generally aren’t adept at existing in it for much longer than it takes to bathe.

Thus, there are all sorts of things that can take place in or hide in bodies of water. Some will be the result of criminal actions; some will be accidental. Many will require police to respond in order to recover evidence or further an investigation, and this requires personnel specially trained and equipped for such duty: a dive team.

Do You Need Divers?

One justification for fielding a police dive team is the search for evidence. Bad guys love to toss weapons and other items of interest into the nearest body of water.

Assistant Chief Charles Hookstra of the Oxnard (Calif.) Police Department remembers when he was a detective back in the 1980s and a double murder suspect was in custody. But he didn’t have the physical evidence to tie the suspect to the crime because it was in one of the area’s waterways. And even though Hookstra and his fellow detectives had a good idea of the general area where the evidence was, they needed to find it before the suspect would have to be released for lack of evidence.

Oh, and as an added obstacle, the water was murky. “Imagine being underwater and having your mask painted black. You use your hands a lot,” Hookstra says.

Despite all these difficulties, Hookstra and his partner did find the evidence at the 11th hour, and it helped to convict the suspect, putting him on death row.

That’s the sort of duty that police dive teams are commonly tasked with—the more down-and-dirty sort of police work that rarely grabs headlines. “It’s tough because we’re not as popular as SWAT,” Hookstra says.

Another job that’s often assigned to police divers is the search-and-rescue mission.

Such is the primary job of the Oakland County (Mich.) Sheriff’s Department dive unit. The sheriff’s department dive team is in charge of nearly 400 square miles dotted with 450 lakes and numerous inland waterways of various sizes.

“People obviously want us to be available [immediately] to try to save their kids or them if they go down or if their car goes off the road,” says Dep. John Graham, an Oakland County dive team member since 1976.

But Graham adds, “We’ve had to do everything. We’ve recovered a couple airplanes that have gone in. There’s a lot of people around here with seaplanes, and if you don’t remember to put the wheels up, that’s bad!” he jokes. On a more serious note, Graham says, “We’ve recovered a lot of weapons. We’re going to go out of [the office] pretty quick and look for a weapon used in a homicide two years ago. The [investigators] finally figured out where he dumped the gun.

Jurisdictional Disputes

Since 9/11, homeland security missions are another responsibility that local law enforcement agencies are often charged with. If there are bridges in the jurisdiction, the underwater portions may need to be checked for explosives. A port may require the hulls of incoming ships to be examined

Obviously there’s a need for dive units, and identifying that need helps when it comes time to ask for the green light in creating something new in a department like a dive unit. None of the officers interviewed for this article reported much difficulty in getting permission to create a dive team. However, they all said that the need had been identified before they approached the brass.

Often, the question of jurisdiction comes up: Whose responsibility is it if, for example, a car falls into a river, especially one that may provide drinking water for the area? What about someone who falls into a lake and hasn’t been seen for 45 minutes? Some might argue that private contractors or other governmental agencies (like the fire department) would handle those tasks.

However, closer examination reveals that might not necessarily be true. As Sgt. Paul Steigleder of the Clackamas County (Ore.) Sheriff’s Department, a dive team member since 1970, says, it depends upon the mission of that particular agency. The department of water resources is responsible for providing clean water, not pulling vehicles out of it. “Is it the fire department’s job to get people out of the water?” he asks rhetorically. “Possibly. In this area, it is a reality that the fire department does water-related rescue.”

The big question between the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Department and the local fire departments is who handles underwater search and rescue. Steigleder says that issue has been decided.

“The [fire departments] are not charged with extensive search-and-rescue operations or recovery missions. So, it’s an obligation of the sheriff to fulfill his duties as a county search-and-rescue provider,” says Steigleder.

Multiple-Agency Planning

Of course, not every law enforcement agency is large enough or can otherwise justify creating its own dive team. That’s a fact that Steigleder knows very well. “Here in Clackamas County, we have a dive team. Our neighboring county—Multnomah County—has a dive team. But then there are numerous counties that we touch on that don’t have dive teams, and they rely on us. We respond through intergovernmental agreements to their areas and provide divers for crime scenes, water rescue, recovery missions, and those kinds of things.”

Steigleder understands why many other Oregon sheriff’s departments haven’t put their own officers in the water.

“It’s not something that every department needs to do,” Steigleder explains. “A dive team is a perfect opportunity to have a multiple-agency program. So if you have a county that has five or six cities with a team member from each one of those different agencies on the team, that helps defray the costs on your tax base and limits the drain on one particular agency’s resources.”

Finding the Money

Once an agency has the go-ahead, procuring funds for equipment and training usually falls into place fairly easily.

However, if the final budget falls somewhat short—certainly not uncommon in today’s financial climate—there are other avenues to explore in order to make that up. Grants can be excellent ways to make up budget shortfalls. For equipment, “hand-me-downs” from the military or other federal agencies through the DRMO program can provide excellent equipment that may simply need cosmetic repairs or has been replaced by new versions.

Such was the case when the Warwick (R.I.) Police Department was outfitting its dive team. It got a pair of Zodiac boats from the Navy. Branch says, “You come on pretty much with your own equipment. We have gear that we use just for the team—dry suits, full-coverage masks, comm systems—and that was all given to us by Customs.”

Public fund-raisers are also excellent sources for funding and equipment. Local dive shops should not be overlooked as a potential well of knowledge.

“If you see a need and mission, you’ve got to be able to go out there and ask, though you may not be real happy with the answer,” Steigleder insists.

“Most of our gear is from donations and fund-raisers,” Branch says.

You may have to be creative when it comes to meeting financial needs. Consider, for instance, the local water treatment provider. As Steigleder points out, “They have a mandate to check the quality of their outflow. So, an agency establishes a dive team then gets a relationship with, say, a water treatment provider. That water treatment provider has a need for divers to do things in the water as far as water-quality testing. That water treatment provider then starts giving some money to the department so that it helps underwrite the cost of the sheriff’s or police department’s diver.”

Equipment and Personnel

The cost can be quite high. Law enforcement divers need top-quality gear, and that is not inexpensive.

Unlike sport divers, law enforcement rescue/recovery divers often work in water that may be contaminated with biological hazards, petrochemicals, drugs, or even explosives. Dry suits help seal a diver from such a dangerous environment and are favored over the wet suits donned by most recreational divers. And that’s just the beginning; the other tools of the trade can also raise the blood pressure of budgetary overseers.

As for personnel, most departments indicate that dive team members were already recreational diving enthusiasts—but not all.

“We’ll take [deputies] that have no diving experience, and things work out better because they have no expectations,” says Graham. “We’ve had several guys who were recreational divers that applied, got on for a year or two, and they just went, ‘No, we can’t do this.’ It’s just not the same [as recreational diving]; it’s apples and oranges. You’re down there and you’re in the pitch-black [water] looking for bodies. You don’t get to pick the day and the time and the weather. It could be the middle of the night. A half-hour earlier, you were asleep in your bed, and now you’re on the bottom of a lake somewhere with eight inches of ice over your head.”

Setting Policy

Like any other portion of a governmental entity, a dive team will need a set of policies and procedures. Some of these will be dictated by occupational safety requirements for a public safety diver in that particular area. What sort of physical testing will be done on dive team candidates? What diving experience, if any, will be required? Once accepted as a candidate, will the officer be able to cope with the unique psychological demands?

“We do a thing called the ‘black mask drill,’ ” Steigleder reveals. “We get the divers comfortable in the environment then deprive them of their eyesight by blacking out their masks, and they have to go through an obstacle course. We see if they’re able to control their nerves and stuff to accomplish a task.”

Steigleder stresses that police divers must be able to work in really horrible conditions that will deprive them of their vision and stress their hearts and minds.

”We’ve been diving in black water [in recovery operations]. You’re swimming along and, bang! You run into something. ‘Okay, well that’s not good.’ So you reach around: ‘I feel something on both sides of me. I feel something on top of me. This is not good.’ So you’re basically trapped. You have to back up a little bit and find out that you just swam right inside a 55-gallon drum. It can cause some people to have just a little bit of panic in that particular instance. It’s not something that every person is suited for.”

One of the best ways to establish training and procedural policy is to build on the works of others. In other words, beg, borrow, and steal.

“I contacted dive teams throughout the country and got different policies and made up our own policy for implementing procedures,” Branch says. “It doesn’t break down exactly how to do a vehicle recovery [for example]. It has to do more with team selection, how many people will be used for each kind of dive. Like a hull search, we’ll use a minimum of six guys.”

An agency’s risk manager should determine proper insurance coverage for a dive unit and its members. Getting time off in order to further the divers’ education via training courses is another consideration. Like any other job, diving is constantly evolving, whether through the introduction of new techniques, new technology, or new equipment. It pays to keep up with these developments, just as it often pays to have a dive team in the first place.

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