Underwater Search and Recovery Diving Unit
When the public consider the fire and rescue service, they think of water simply in relation to its use as a tool for putting out fires, but as recent incidents have shown water is an element with which the service engages with in many different ways.
Water rescue operations have grown in number and scale over past years, whether inland or in coastal areas, and many fire and rescue services now offer this capability. Firefighters assist people to safety from flooded properties, use high-volume pumps to prevent and mitigate the effects of flooding and communicate water safety messages to adults and children. Currently however, only one service – Norfolk Fire & Rescue Service - operates a specially trained dive team to undertake the recovery of bodies, vehicles and weapons. To set up its Under Water Search and Recovery (UWSAR) team, Norfolk received a grant from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to extend the capability of its existing Urban Search and Rescue team.
The UWSAR dive unit is part of a wider programme of collaboration on specialist operational capabilities being developed between the police and fire and rescue services within Norfolk and Suffolk. This collaboration includes hazardous area search activity such as underwater, in confined spaces or at height, but also extends to cover firearms and chemical incidents and use of search dogs. The aim is to improve the service the public receives in an emergency by building on the already close relationships between blue light services and making the most flexible use possible of resources.
Norfolk's UWSAR team has a Memorandum of Understanding with Norfolk and Suffolk Police to carry out underwater recovery work and has carried out many diving operations all over the Eastern Region. The team is able to deploy to regional, national, and if necessary, international incidents as part of the National Resilience function.
The team has the capability to carry out the following dive tasking:
- Entrapped personnel in water (drains, grates, fences, etc.)
- Submerged vehicles
- Confined spaces and sewers
- Upturned or submerged boats
- Protection of critical infrastructure
- Body retrieval
- Underwater search (weapons, crime scene evidence)
- CT Licensed Search (all the team are Licensed Search Officers, LSO)
The UWSAR team has a range of equipment to use in its dive work, including Interspiro DP1 surface supply equipment, through water and hard wire communications, sonar capability, hydraulic cutting equipment, a selection of air bags and three types of boat.
There are nine members of the team: six divers qualified to HSE Part III commercial diver level and three diving attendants. Four of the divers have more than 25 years of experience each. All are
trained in USAR, swift water rescue, rope rescue and boat handling.
To operate safely and effectively at incidents, the team follows the Inland, Inshore Commercial Diving Projects Approved Code of Practice (ACoP). At a recent visit from the Senior Inspectorate of
Diving, they were ‘very satisfied that the UWSAR team is set up to comply with Diving at Work Regulations.
The team adheres to the ACPO Police Diving Manual when undertaking work for the police, and dive team members have completed the National Police Improvements Agency Personal Safety Training course. The UWSAR team is now registered on the National Crime Agency (NCA) database as Specialist Operations Centre Expert Advisers.
To keep its skills and knowledge honed, the UWSAR team undertakes regular training. It carries out two training periods per month and periodic regional diving training with a variety of Police Forces and external organisations.
Members of the team have also gained a number of additional dive related qualifications. Two members of the team have completed the Association of Diving Contractors (ADC) Air Supervisors course at the Underwater Centre in Fort William, Scotland, and two are qualified ‘Diver Medic’ trained, accredited by the Diving Medical Advisory Committee (DMAC). Eight Senior Officers have attended a two day Diving Contractors course facilitated by the Underwater Centre Fort William.
National Operational Guidance
The recently published National Operational Guidance for water rescue and flooding highlights the use of specialist dive teams for rescue and recovery operations. Incident commanders are advised not to place non-specialist personnel at unnecessary danger at sub-surface incidents, but to request a specialist underwater search and recovery dive team.
The guidance explains that standard fire and rescue service breathing apparatus is not designed for underwater use. Although superficially similar to scuba gear, fire service breathing apparatus lacks a critical drain port in the first stage demand valve. Any seepage of water into the first stage can trigger an immediate hydraulic lock with no prior warning, leading to catastrophic failure of air supply.
National Operational Guidance for water rescue and flooding can be seen on the guidance programme website www.ukfrs.com. This is yet another example of the wide ranging and varied work of the fire and rescue service and the collaborative approach we take in all we do.