David Barile is a Public Safety Diver and a Deputy Sheriff in California, USA. One of his main duties includes coordinating underwater search and recoveries. Here he talks about his duties as a PSD and how he entered the industry.
Tell us about your current role.
My current job title is Deputy Sheriff. I was sworn in as a deputy sheriff in 1997. During the last 23 years, I have held assignments in our court security unit, uniformed patrol and robbery/property detectives.
One of my collateral duties is that of public safety diver on our Underwater Search and Recovery team. I have been on the dive team for the last 18 years. With the dive team, I am the senior diver and also a PADI certified dive instructor.
What is a Public Safety Diver?
A public safety diver is a person that is employed by a public safety agency, such as law enforcement, fire department or ambulance, and who is trained to perform underwater rescues or search and recoveries.
How did you get as started as Public Safety Diver?
I started my career path in law enforcement by completing the police academy. I was then hired by the Sheriff’s office where I completed my field training program.
During my first assignment, I had a supervisor that had been on the dive team. Listening to him talk about his experiences on the dive team sparked my interest in learning to dive. I remember asking him what it was like looking for and finding a drowning victim in zero visibility. He told me, “It’s kind of like watching a scary movie, you know it’s coming, you just don’t know when.” At that point, I think I was hooked. A few months later I was told that there was going to be an opening on the dive team so I went to the local dive shop and obtained my open water certificate. Once a spot on the dive team opened up, I applied and interviewed for the position. I have been on the team ever since.
What does a typical day look like for a Public Safety Diver?
We are not a full time team, meaning we all have other law enforcement duties and when there is a callout, we then change over to the diver mode and head to where ever the scene may be. When on a dive scene, the divers are prepping gear, setting up communications or loading up one of the boats.
What are the duties and responsibilities of a Public Safety Diver?
There are 15 divers including me on the sheriff’s dive unit. When we get called out to a scene of a drowning, accident or evidence recovery, we will conduct a scene survey to see what will be the best way to conduct the search and recovery. We will evaluate the scene based on water and access conditions. We have different search techniques that we train in for different water types like still water vs current, deep vs. shallow, shore based vs. boat.
While that is taking place, one of the divers will be assigned to interview any witnesses so we can get a firsthand account of what occurred. The witness will be taken back to where they were when they last saw the victim and try to give an exact location by using a swimmer in the water or landmarks.
Once a plan is in place then the whole team is briefed on what happened, what were are searching for and how we are going to conduct the search. Each diver is then given an assignment.
For example, if we were going to conduct a shore search using a pendulum search pattern, we would set up a three-diver team with a line tender and communications officer. The three divers would be the primary diver, the safety diver and the third is the 90 percent.
The primary diver will be connected to the shore via a hardwire communications line. This serves as both a safety line and communications. The safety diver will be fully suited up and staged next to the line tender. He is also connected to the shore by a hardwire communications line. The safety diver can hear and contribute to all communications with the primary diver and communications officer. The 90 percent diver is staged on shore with all of his gear on except for his mask.
Other team members that are not immediately diving will be assigned to assist the divers with getting ready, conducting safety checks, refilling air tanks or acting as downstream safeties when we are in moving water.
If we are training I am a PADI certified dive instructor and my duties are to set up the training matrix for the day and conduct the training. I also complete all of the certifications for the new divers.
What skills do you need to become a Public Safety Diver? Are there specific courses for this role?
First and foremost, to be a public safety diver, you must be a member of a public safety agency, law enforcement, fire, medical.
For my agency, we don’t require you to be a certified diver, but it doesn’t hurt if you are. When we have an opening, we put out an agency-wide flier stating the requirements. The candidates are required to complete a swim fit test and an interview. Once you make it onto the team, I handle all of the certifications. Over the next year, the new diver will be certified from open water through rescue diver.
There are specific courses that you can take to help with being a public safety diver. PADI, as well as NAUI, offers a public safety diver course. My agency sent me to a two and a half month course put on by the LA County Sheriff’s Office that was specifically for public safety divers. There are also companies like Dive Rescue International that certify public safety divers in search techniques, current diving, and salvage work.
What equipment do you use?
Most of the gear that we use is standard recreational dive gear. We have two different suits, one wetsuit and a bio dry dry suit. We also have two different BCD’s. One is a standard minimal BCD and the other is a BIO hazard BCD. We use the Interspiro Divator mask with communication systems from Ocean Technology Systems. We have both through water and hardline communications.
Can you describe the conditions you dive in; depths, temperature, visibility?
The county that I work for is inland, so no fun beach dives into the pacific for us. Inland diving locations consist of canals, rivers, ponds, and lakes, most of which go from a couple of feet visibility on a good day to no visibility on most days. We are used to diving in zero visibility because we train in zero visibility.
One lake in particular that we have several drownings in each summer not only has zero visibility but it has deep soft mud on the bottom and a type of weed called Hydrilla. The hydrilla grows in a band around the lake about 15 to 20 feet thick and is as tall as the water is deep, meaning if it is 10 feet deep the Hydrilla is 10 feet tall. It’s difficult enough diving in zero visibility water but when you add in a plant that wraps around all your gear, your arms and legs, it becomes dangerous…Continue reading