On a cold January evening, the dive unit of the St. Petersburg, FL, Fire Department settled into the day room of Fire Station 5, hoping the balance of the shift would be uneventful. Then, like a child mocking its mother, the bell on the wall rang, shattering the divers’ hopes — the team was being dispatched for a water rescue.
En route to the call, the team was advised that two ships had collided while entering the Port of Tampa near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge; one was reported overturned.
At approximately 8 P.M. on Jan. 28, 1980, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn collided with the 600-foot-oil tanker Capricorn while entering the Port of Tampa. The collision ripped a gash into the side of the Blackthorn’s hull, causing it to immediately capsize and sink to the bottom. There were 50 people aboard. Members of the St. Petersburg Fire Department marine rescue unit were among the first called to assist in the rescue effort.
“When we arrived on scene, all you could see was a massive bubble of air coming to the surface where the ship went down,” said Deputy Chief Gerard Chalmers, the unit’s dive master and a certified dive instructor. “It appeared as if the surface of the water was boiling.”
Because the possibility of trapped survivors was high, the team chose to dive on the site despite unfavorable conditions. Team members worked through the night, fighting strong currents, cold water and poor visibility, and made repeated dives on the wreck below. By the time the incident was over, 27 Coast Guard seamen were rescued from the surface but 23 of their shipmates had died, trapped inside the ship below.
Such an event can tax the training and resources of even the most experienced dive team. On that night, members of the St. Petersburg Fire Department assisted in saving many lives that might have been lost without their services. What the team learned in the process could never be simulated in a training exercise.
That experience proved invaluable when only three months later, in a heavy rainstorm, the 608-foot freighter Summit Venture collided with the support structure of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The bridge broke, and 35 people — some passengers on a bus, others still sitting in their vehicles — fell 175 feet to the water below. In that incident, only one person survived.
Of the lessons learned in both incidents, the most important was that organization and the setting of immediate priorities are paramount to a successful rescue operation. Having a plan and a proper incident command structure in place can make the difference in coping with calls of this magnitude.
“The number-one priority, after ensuring the safety of your personnel, is rescuing the victims on the surface of the water,” said Chalmers, who has 30 years of diving experience, 22 of them as a public safety diver. “These are your most viable victims and usually have the greatest chance of survival.”
Most victims trapped below the surface must be reached within four minutes to be rescued; after that, they’ve probably drowned. Exceptions to the four-minute rule are victims trapped in sealed, watertight compartments or when the temperature is below 70 degrees. In cold- water incidents, the window for rescuing victims can be extended to as much as an hour.
Rescuing victims from submerged vehicles can be an area where fire departments feel compelled to act, and the public has come to expect intervention. The truth is, however, that unless victims can be reached within the first few minutes of entering the water, their chance of survival is small. In research compiled by the STAR project (Submerged Transportation Accident Report) conducted by Michigan State University and the Michigan State Police, some interesting facts were revealed.
Most significantly, the idea of air pockets forming and allowing trapped victims to breathe for extended periods simply does not occur. The researchers found that once a vehicle enters the water, it goes nose down, water enters through the vents and rapidly fills the passenger compartment. This forces trapped air past the back seat and out of the trunk seals.
“Unless the driver is able to escape the vehicle on their own in the first few minutes of entering the water, they’re probably not going to make it,” Chalmers said.
The researchers further found that once a vehicle enters the water, it is almost impossible to force open a door, due to unequal pressure. Once in the water, rolling down the window and escaping through the opening is the best course of action.
“Power windows usually continue to function for up to four minutes and can be opened even under water,” Chalmers added, “but the victim must know what to do and not panic.”
Thinking of starting a dive team?
“Having a successful dive team takes more than well-intentioned sport divers with Dive Rescue stenciled on their shirts,” Chalmers noted. “It takes a commitment in manpower, training and equipment.”
Public safety divers are not sport divers. They are highly trained and specially equipped police, fire or EMS personnel who are prepared to perform rescue operations in unique, and often unfavorable, conditions. This can mean anything from diving in a polluted retention pond to doing recovery work on a downed ship in a flooding channel.
“Fire departments have to evaluate if they even want to have a dive team,” Chalmers said. “Do they have a true need? Do they have the manpower to staff the unit? Do they have the funding to finance the team and the very expensive equipment required?”
Department administrators should determine whether other agencies in the area are capable of providing dive service. “If this is so, don’t start a team,” Chalmers advised. The financial resources, manpower and training required can make even a large department rethink the necessity of having a dive team.
If there is a need for water rescue services, Chalmers suggests beginning by providing only surface rescue. This will require a smaller investment of time and money and have the greatest cost benefit to the department and the public, as surface encompasses the majority of viable water rescue calls.
“Once you get to putting a diver in the water, you’re entering a whole other level of service,” Chalmers said, “and departments need to decide if they want to make that commitment.”
Underwater work involves both rescue and recovery missions, tasks that can be rewarding while also posing many challenges. In the dive site that is a crime scene or involves evidence recovery, proper legal procedure must be followed. If a victim is trapped below the surface, a determination as to when the rescue operation stops and recovery operations begin must be made.
“This decision should always be based on the circumstances of the incident, not a pre-set time limit,” Chalmers said.
In a situation where the victim is presumed dead, rescuers should consider that timely body recovery can have a significant emotional impact on the surviving family members. The benefit of providing recovery service to the public should not be underestimated.
“You should treat all calls for service as a rescue-related incident until proven differently,” Chalmers cautioned.
Once on scene, an evaluation of the circumstances can be made to determine whether a dive operation is necessary. The safety of team members should always be the first concern in choosing to place personnel in water.
“Safety in the water always equates to proper training, and most problems divers have relate to forgotten basics,” Chalmers said.
Making the basics second nature is the hallmark of an experienced diver. Dive team training should include getting wet at least once a month and going through a thorough review of basic procedures annually. Also, training in the environment you will be diving in if an emergency occurs is a good idea.
“Constantly training in 10 feet of water or less can ill prepare a diver for working at 30 to 50 feet,” Chal-mers said.
Each department should evaluate its service area and prepare to work in the type of condition members will encounter. Preparation is the key, he said; don’t even think of starting an operation you are not sure you can handle — you may place your divers in danger and make them additional victims.
The St. Petersburg marine unit has been involved in many high profile water rescue incidents, saving many lives that otherwise would have been lost. The department, however, is facing the same crisis of limited funding and cutbacks as many other fire departments. This places all department-provided services in the spotlight, weighing the cost of providing the service against the benefit to the community.
Statistically, the benefit of water rescue is in surface operations, not underwater work. This fact, along with the large commitment in manpower and money to maintain a dive unit, has caused the St. Petersburg Fire Department to promote its services as marine rescue, not as a dive team.
“I think with the amount of water in our area, we will always provide some type of water rescue service,” Chalmers said. “The future of our dive effort, however, remains to be seen.”
One thing is sure. The ability of fire departments to provide dive rescue services, like all fire department functions, will depend on the support of the individual governing agencies, the desire of the community to have the service and the willingness of each to pay for them.
Chris Bengivengo is a certified paramedic and rescue diver with St. Petersburg, FL, Fire Department. He writes a weekly column on fire safety for a local newspaper.