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This continues our discussion of an incident involving the Baltimore City Fire Department (BCFD). As I noted last month, this close call provides loads of valuable information from which we all can learn, especially those of us who respond to water emergencies. Our sincere thanks to Chief of Department James Clack along with the entire investigative team, officers and members of the BCFD.
The following information was provided by Chief Clack:
The BCFD Dive Rescue (SCUBA) Team dates back to 1974, when members Frank Sappe, Bill Schulze, Ron Baker and Mike Dalton, using their own equipment, were given permission by then-Chief of Fire Department Thomas J. Burke to provide a service to the city and the department in SCUBA diving operations. In 1978, a $10,000 grant from the Baltimore City Council was used to purchase equipment. A 1969 Department of Education van was acquired and SCUBA 1 was born. All members operated on a fully voluntary basis, including training, and due to different circumstances most have since left the team. In the following years, minor purchases and maintenance costs were incurred. In 1982, approval was given to train on duty as incidents were increasing.
In 1985, a major change took place. Due to the hazards of diving in the harbor waters from pollutants, chemicals and other environmental concerns, total encapsulation of the diver became necessary. A transition from SCUBA to commercial diving equipment began. For $15,000 a system of dry operations and surface-supplied air was purchased and incorporated into the dive program. Since July 1, 1986, the team has responded to more than 1,000 calls. It also has provided maintenance service to the fireboats, performed community education seminars and assisted outside agencies such as The U.S. Coast Guard; Department of Natural Resources; federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); Maryland State Police; BCFD Fire Investigation Bureau; Baltimore City Police Department; U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the FBI.
Since 1992, the team has become an integral part of the makeup of the fire service. With Baltimore City’s ever-expanding waterfront properties and development, the service provided by the team finally received the recognition it justly deserves. During 10 days in March 2004, the team led the largest assemblage of agencies ever amassed to perform a marine rescue operation in Maryland. The objective was to locate and recover the victims of a tragic water taxi accident. Despite multiple obstacles, the operation proved successful and all victims were returned to their loved ones.
Personnel and equipment
The Dive Rescue Team is staffed with 14 personnel. All divers are members of the fire department and their ranks and assignments vary throughout the department. The team is equipped with advanced dive equipment. It is still outfitted with SCUBA tanks, but the primary choice for diving is surface-supplied air. Due to water contamination in Baltimore and the surrounding area, the divers use the most durable diving suit available. Viking dry suits, made by the Scandinavian company Viking, are used by military institutions throughout the world and are the primary suit worn by commercial divers. The suit is vulcanized rubber, which provides the diver with thermal protection as well as advanced protection from hazardous materials.
Baltimore City is one of the few public safety dive teams in the country that operates with the Kirby Morgan KB17B Superlite Diving Helmet. It is operated with surface-supplied air and provides thermal comfort (–31 degrees Fahrenheit) and protection from the hazards in the water. It allows two-way communications from a communications person on the dive site. The helmet is rated to 220 feet per sea water (fsw) on 21% air. The surface communications and air supply is distributed using the Kirby Morgan Dive Communications box. This is considered to be the nucleus brain center for divers in the water. Communication is vital to the success of the type of diving in Baltimore and the surrounding waters. There is very little, if any, visibility and effective communications is a critical safety feature for the diver. The box has the capability to provide communications and air to two divers operating simultaneously. It is connected to air supply tanks that transfer air though the box. The air is then distributed to umbilical supply hose that range in length from 150 to 300 feet.