…The canals can be just as dangerous too. Even though the depths are predictable and the bottom is concrete, you have to worry about obstructions and debris thrown in. I have come across objects from shopping carts to cars hidden in the murky water. Each one poses a different type of hazard for a diver.
As for depths we could be in a canal that is 3-4 feet to one of our lakes that is a couple of hundred feet deep, but we adhere to recreational dive limits and don’t dive deeper that 130 feet. If we have a recovery deeper than our limits, we can call other agencies that have the specialized equipment like rebreathers or ROV’s.
The water temps that we dive in vary depending on the time of year and the location. The average temperature here in central California can be in the upper 90’s to 110 degrees in the summer. In the winter it can drop to the lower 40’s to upper 30’s. That is on the valley floor. We also have a section of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that run through the county with elevations above 7000 feet. During the winter the lakes at these elevations are frozen and during the summer they are in the 40’s to 50’s.
For this dive team it not just depth, temp, and visibility. We also have to contend with elevation changes. It’s not uncommon for us to have to go from 300 ft elevation on the valley floor to a 7000 ft elevation in a matter of 2 hours.
Describe your search and recovery duties. What does this entail?
My specific duties on a search and recovery is to help with diver supervision. As well as being a diver. We have Sergeants on the team but they have a lot to deal with on a call out. The Sergeant is ultimately in charge of the dive but as the instructor, I tend to help run the divers. I meet with the sergeant and we assess the scene as well as set up the dive teams based on skill and experience. Some places I want a specific diver because I know he will be able to complete the assigned task.
For a public safety diver most of what we are searching for and recovering are drowning victims. There is no fun or excitement in those types of recoveries. The most we hope to get is knowing that we have provided a family with some type of closure. It’s hard when we are on a scene where a child has drowned and we have to tell the victims family to go home because it’s too dark for us to continue for the day. You see the look on their face when they have to leave without their child. The pain they must feel not knowing what happened or where they are.
On a scene we try to isolate ourselves away from the families and friends of the victims so that we can do our job without having to explain what we are trying to accomplish. When we do locate a victim, we try to be as discreet as possible. If the conditions are safe, we have the safety diver swim a body bag out to the primary diver. The victim is then put in the bag underwater so that the family or the media don’t see the victim. The body bag is either taken to the shore by the divers or put on a boat and taken to the command area. We try to keep the body bag covered and hidden from view until the coroner is on scene.
We also conduct evidence searches. These are usually for homicide cases where the suspect has thrown a weapon, like a gun, into the water. We have located several guns and cell phones that have tied a suspect to a specific case.
Describe your most challenging or difficult search and recovery job.
One of the more challenging dives we have had to do was at a high mountain lake that was in a wilderness area. It was a three-hour drive to get to our staging area. On that drive, we had to cross a mountain pass at an elevation just over 9000 feet and then drop down to 6000 feet. Once we got to our staging area, we had to load all of our dive gear on pack horses because the lake we were going to had no vehicle access.
Once the gear was loaded, on the horses, we began our hike to the lake. At the lake, we were fortunate to have a good search location due to multiple witnesses. The victim was located after about a 15-minute dive in zero visibility. After the dive, we loaded our gear and the victim back on the horses and we hiked out. We ended up having to stay at the staging area for several hours because of the climb back out over the 9000-foot pass. For this call, the dive was not the challenging part. The challenge was getting our gear and ourselves into an area that was not only a high altitude but also had no way to access except by foot.
How dangerous is your job? Have you ever experienced a close call?
Recreational diving has its hazards and dangers, what we do as public safety divers increases those dangers a hundredfold. We are diving in conditions that most people would not even swim in let alone dive in. We deal with zero visibility, snags, and debris. One of the most dangerous areas we dive in is the canals. Not only is their debris but there are strong currents, low head dams, and spill gates. In our area, we have had several dive deaths in canals.
I have had a couple of close calls, both of which were in rivers. On one we were looking for a drowning victim inside submerged trees. I was heading downriver when a tree branch became lodged between my back and my BCD. I had the current pushing against me and I was unable to see how I was trapped. I could not drop my gear and swim out because the current was pushing me deeper into the tree and there was no clear path above me. It was several minutes but I was able to push against the current and free myself from the branch. I then had to drop to the bottom and fight the current to get to an area where I could get to the surface.
What is the potential salary as a Public Safety Diver?
Salaries depend of the agency that you work for and rank. I make the same amount of money as any other deputy sheriff’s in my agency that have the same amount of time on the job. We do not get any extra pay for being on the dive team.
How competitive is the industry?
When I first started diving for the sheriff’s office, it was not very competitive. In fact not many people wanted to do the job. When I applied, there was three of us competing for five spots. Needless to say we all made the team. Some of the issues were you had to get yourself certified, you used your own gear and we trained together maybe once or twice a year. It was a large expense and a dangerous job.
Now attitudes within my agency have changed. They stared realizing how dangerous it was and the need for specialized gear and training. Now all of the gear is provided by the agency, so we all wear the same thing so we all know how the gear works. We do all of our own open water to rescuer diver certifications so everyone is trained the same and we have monthly trainings. Our dive team has become very competitive. Divers tend to stay on this team for a long time and there are rarely openings. The last time we had an opening, there were ten deputies fighting for one spot.
Do you dive recreationally, and where do you dive for fun?
I do get to dive recreationally on occasion but not as often as I would like. Being that I am in central California, I can get to some of the best dive locations in a couple of hours like Monterey Bay, which has spectacular kelp forests or we head to Southern California where we can jump on a dive boat and go out to Catalina and the other Channel Islands.