Firefighter trapped in Dive Team Emergency

Performing other than fire-related rescues is nothing new for the fire service. From a child’s head caught in a banister to a person trapped in heavy machinery, a firefighter literally never knows what the next run will be. Because of that, we have an obligation to be prepared and have the predictably needed resources (ours or through a pre-planned mutual response) ready to handle the emergency, no matter what the emergency may be.

Every fire department has the opportunity to pre-plan and prepare before “the run” comes in. Look around your first-due response area. High rises? Subways? Railroads? Rural areas without water? Mega McMansions with lightweight construction? Tank farms? Interstate highways? Acme Dynamite Manufacturing? Look around.

It’s no secret that’s how you determine what you will eventually respond to. As Frank Brannigan told us, “Know your enemy,” and the building is what he was referring to. In this case, know whatever you may have to respond to – and know it well. Pre-plan and train, train, train. Rarely should we be surprised to respond on any run when that potential has been right under our noses for years. We have an obligation to those we serve and to each other.

Department overview

Knowing what it protects and being prepared is a well-known hallmark of the Baltimore City, MD, Fire Department. As an overview, Baltimore, an independent political jurisdiction not located in a county, is the largest city in Maryland and the cultural center of the state. The city is in central Maryland along the Patapsco River, which feeds into Chesapeake Bay. The harbor is now home to Harborplace, a shopping, entertainment and tourist center, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The population of Baltimore City is more than 636,000. The city has a total area of 92.1 square miles, of which 80.8 square miles is land and 11.3 square miles is water.

The Baltimore City Fire Department has more than 1,800 members who are divided into two management branches – Emergency Operations and Planning and Administration. The department responds to more than 235,000 emergency 911 calls per year.

The assistant chief of operations oversees the work of four deputy chief/shift commanders and the EMS deputy chief. Operations personnel work out of 38 neighborhood fire stations. These stations house about 100 firefighting, emergency medical and special operations companies. These units include 35 engine companies, 18 ladder companies, 24 first-line medic units, four critical alert medic units, four rescue squad/pumpers and a heavy rescue as well as specialty units such as hazmat trucks, dive rescue unit, collapse rescue vehicles, mobile command vehicles and various fireboats. The department is divided into six suppression battalions and one EMS battalion, on four shifts. The work schedule is comprised of two 10-hour days and two 14-hour nights followed by four days off.

While being one of the best-trained and best-prepared fire departments, things can go wrong – and that’s the subject of this two-part close call. In this case, we have the opportunity to learn from the experiences of the Baltimore City Fire Department. Our sincere thanks to Chief of Department James Clack along with the entire investigative team, officers and members of the Baltimore City Fire Department. This close call also provides us with insight on how the team was established by the chief, its direction and the process followed in determining what happened and preventing it from happening again. This two-part column also will include significant in-depth background information that is valuable to any reader, but specifically important for those departments that have the potential for water rescue responses. As usual, this close call provides loads of valuable information that the Baltimore City FD can learn from – but just as (or even more) important, we all can learn from their experience.

The following information is provided by Chief of Department James Clack of the Baltimore City Fire Department:

At the fire chief’s direction, Assistant Chief Jeffrey Segal appointed Deputy Chief Stephen Weigman as chairman of an investigative team to explore the various aspects of a serious diving accident that occurred on Dec. 5, 2011. The team’s goal was to find out what happened and to make recommendations to prevent a recurrence. This effort was not focused in any way toward taking disciplinary action or causing embarrassment to those involved with this incident. The team was comprised of experienced fire department divers, the safety officer, representatives from Fire Officers’ Local 964 and Fire Fighters’ Local 734. While the team was conducting its investigation, their chief officers were immediately reviewing the various dive operations that were currently being used.

The members of the Baltimore City Fire Department are dedicated, courageous and committed to their profession. Time and history has clearly proven that. The dive team is comprised of fire department personnel who volunteer to participate on an advanced rescue team. They do a great job day in and day out. It was the fire chief’s intention to find opportunities to be more effective, efficient and safer, so that “everyone goes home at the end of their shift in the same condition they came to work.”

Incident overview

On Dec. 2, 2011, a Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission employee was transporting a dead deer by boat at the Triadelphia Reservoir, in Montgomery County, MD. He was last seen launching his boat into the reservoir. The lone boater was to return at 2 P.M. that day; however, his boat washed ashore with the deer, but without him. He was reported missing to the Montgomery County Police Department and a search of the reservoir was initiated.

The search included several agencies’ rescue teams, which provided air support, dive teams, water vessels and search dogs. On Dec. 4, the Baltimore City Fire Department was contacted by the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Department to request the assistance of the Dive Rescue Team and the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Team. The dive team is equipped with advanced dive equipment and underwater sonar. The team gathered at Baltimore City’s Steadman Station on the morning of Dec. 5. The team consisted of six members along with two members of the USAR Team. All equipment was inspected and the team departed for the reservoir.

From rescue to recovery

The team members arrived at the reservoir at approximately 7 A.M. The members were assembled and briefed by unified command. The rescue phase of the incident had been completed, and it was now deemed a recovery operation. On the previous day, sonar indicated two possible targets that were to be searched. The dive mission was to locate and clear each target. The members assembled the needed equipment and boarded a vessel for transportation to the area where the dive operation would be conducted. The team prepared for the dive, which consisted of setting up equipment, diver preparation and making safety checks.

Dive operations commenced with one primary diver entering the water. The search of the two targets was conducted with negative results. The diver was instructed to stand by while the sonar was repositioned; at that point, he reported being struck by an object. He identified the object as an unsecured anchor line.

The diver then reported that his umbilical line was caught on something and it felt like he was being pulled. He then reported that his incoming air supply was cut off. He immediately relayed information that he was accessing his emergency air supply (bailout bottle). He then reported he was not getting air from the emergency bailout bottle and he was making an emergency ascent.

The diver then released his weight belt, which sent him rapidly to the surface. He was then retrieved by the members in the boat operating the sonar equipment. The diver was unconscious and cyanotic (blue, especially lips and fingers) with agonal respirations (gasping). The diver’s helmet was removed and within seconds his respirations increased and he regained consciousness. He was moved to a medic unit on shore and transported to a medical facility. The dive operation was terminated. n

Next: The sequence of events

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a firefighter since 1973 and a chief officer since 1982. He is deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has served on numerous National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) committees. He is on the board of directors of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (representing the Safety, Health and Survival Section), National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, September 11th Families Association and National Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free, non-commercial website www. Goldfeder can be contacted at