A year ago, we paid a visit to the Dive and Marine Unit to get a grounding in the underwater officers’ work. In this article we re-visit the Greenock based outfit and sit down for a Q&A with PC Karen Gordon, to find out what it takes to earn the right to strap on the aqualung, how throwing evidence in the canal doesn’t work, what the word scuba actually means, and how to handle scary encounters with the local sea life during an underwater search.
Hi, Karen, and thanks for having us. So how does one get started with the Dive and Marine Unit?
You have to have your two years probationary service as an officer under your belt for a start. To apply to the dive unit, there’s an application process and assessment, beginning with basic swimming tests, doing around ten lengths of a pool. There are also lifesaving drills, which involve swimming a few lengths of the pool then doing a towed rescue, where we wear leggings or a long sleeve top during the swim, then remove them and use the clothing to tow the rescue. We also do full contact rescue simulations, breath only CPR while in the water, duck dives and tests in the pool with the various types of breathing apparatus.
I’m exhausted just thinking about it. What happens next?
The assessments then move onto to tests with the apparatus in open water areas, such as the pier at Luss, which we like to use for the clear, relatively shallow water. We do various underwater tasks, search patterns, and see how applicants operate with a blacked out mask which simulates zero visibility. This is something the Fire Service also train recruits in, and it’s to gauge how people react once the lights go out. It’s amazing because it can calm some people down because you’re concentrating fully on your breathing, your sense of touch, and the task at hand, but other people get a bit freaked out by suddenly being in complete darkness up to fifty metres underwater. It gives a good indication to whether an applicant is going to be suitable for the work.
Okay, that sounds scary. And if you’re not too traumatised to continue?
If you’re successful and get through all of that relatively unscathed, then it’s a basic eight week diving course. We’ll take applicants like myself who had no previous diving experience, and the course brings you in slowly so you’re learning all the time. They will also take people with previous experience, though this can sometimes be a hindrance as they may bring habits they’ve learned from recreational diving.
That must be a pretty intense eight weeks. What goes on during this time?
Through the basic diving course, we’re taken through all the competencies, and as the weeks go on the dives get deeper and longer, becoming more difficult and technical, with various scenarios thrown in. A large part of the training is on underwater search patterns, and there are several different types to learn dependant on the scenario. We use the different types of equipment, and again there’s a wide range to get through, including using the SCUBA gear, which is actually an acronym for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.
I did not know that. I imagine there’s some sort of test after the course?
Yes, at the end of the eight weeks, there’s a written exam based on the training manual, with a pass mark of 80 percent. This can also include things like boat handling, water based collision regulations, knowing your marker buoys that indicate depths and hazards, basic seamanship and navigation skills.
That’s a whole lot of learning to get through. Do you get more training once you’re a fully-fledged member of the unit?
Yes, we do continual training on the job to keep everything fresh in your mind and learn any other extra skills we might need. For example, I was recently doing some training in driving the Polaris off road vehicles, which we sometimes use when accessing off-road locations such as remote lochs. We also do training in swift water rescue using kayaks. These are essential skills to have as a kayak search can deploy quickly and cover a large area, and if we fall out of them, we need to be able to self-rescue. All our training is done to the same standards, protocols and regulations as the fire service use.
You’re based in the Greenock Fire Station. Do you work closely with the guys here?
We do. We also do joint training with the fire service as we often attend the same incidents together. As an example, we worked together during the flooding in Ayshire during the winter the year before last where a bus got stuck, so we went down and assisted with that, took one of our boats and helped retrieve passengers. If we have people in trouble in a fast moving river, such as kids jumping in for a swim, we can also assist the fire service in situations like that.
Are there any other emergency services you team up with?
We often work alongside the coastguard and RNLI, which are great for local knowledge. If we go somewhere we’ve not been before, these are the guys we speak to for information on tidal movement, missing people’s last known locations, and to get an idea of the lay of the land, which being local, they know best. It’s great having these teams to help us, but ultimately, once anyone has breached the surface of the water, it will be the dive team that covers them, particularly under five or six feet below the surface.
Snorkels and speedos is about as far as my knowledge of underwater apparel goes. Can you tell us about some of the more advanced gear that you use?
If it’s a relatively risk-free dive in shallow water with little risk, then we’ll do the dive on standard scuba gear, which is our bread and butter, but our fail safe is surface supply, with the umbilical coming down to the diver. Doing it this way means we can keep a bank of air on the surface so that if the diver becomes entangled in something, we can still supply oxygen, though even this isn’t infinite. If we dive any deeper than thirty metres, if the dive’s going to be particularly technical, or there’s high risk involved in entrapment hazards, then the dive will always be done on surface supply. The system is quite heavy and cumbersome, but has the added benefit of including communication hardware so the team on the surface can speak to the diver. It’s also got a pneumofathometer, so we can tell how deep the diver is from the surface. The deeper you go, if you become affected by the nitrogen narcosis (a condition brought on by the anaesthetic effect of breathing gases at depth), you can get a bit silly, and if you’re being asked for your maximum depth, sometimes you can give that information inaccurately, so the equipment gives the dive supervisor an accurate view of how the dive’s going, how deep the diver is and how long they can remain submerged.
So how many people make up a dive team?
The minimum team for scuba dives is five people; the diving supervisor, the diver, a diver’s attendant who helps them getting dressed for the job and who is responsible for looking after the life line. We also need a standby diver who stands ready, fully dressed (apart from their face mask) and ready in case of an emergency or if we need help in a recovery job. Then there’s the standby diver’s attendant. If we're using the low pressure surface supply system, there's a team member who looks after the system control panel, because dependant on the diver’s depth, we need to deliver a certain amount of air through the breathing apparatus. If we want to put two divers in the water, they each need their own attendants as well as the standby diver and their attendant. If we're diving from a boat, we need a Coxswain in charge of the vessel, and as the dives become more technical and dangerous then we can add staff on for various jobs and surface duties.
Sounds like it can get pretty crowded. Do you ever have any contact with the local wildlife when working?
Yes, not so long ago, we actually got involved in rescuing a beached dolphin with the help of the staff at one of the Sea Life centres. We were later invited to use one of their indoor tanks (complete with sharks and turtles) for training. I’ve also heard about a diver coming into contact with a basking shark in the past, and we often encounter seals, which can actually be quite aggressive sometimes if you get too close. I can also personally tell you that diving in a crab-infested harbour with zero visibility and feeling things moving about on the seabed is not a fun experience.
Okay, I’m never going swimming again. According to the movies, a sure fire way of getting rid of damning evidence is to chuck it in the nearest body of water. Fact or fiction?
Absolute fiction. The bulk of the work we do is in recovery, either of missing people or of physical evidence such as weapons. We have specific search patterns we use when looking to recover certain items, and even after spending a considerable amount of time at the bottom of a river, loch or canal, a knife for example can be found relatively easily if you know what you're doing, and it can still hold sufficient DNA evidence or blood samples for a conviction.
Check out the video below of Karen demonstrating some of the essential gear used by the Marine and Dive Unit.