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Career Captain Drowns After Running Out of Air During Technical Rescue SCUBA Dive—North Carolina

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Death in the Line of Duty…A summary of a NIOSH fire fighter fatality investigation

F2016-09 Date Released: December 15, 2021

Executive Summary

On June 6, 2016, a 28-year-old male, part-time, career fire captain died after running out of air and suffering a pulmonary embolism during a technical rescue deep dive. The victim was a member of a local fire department dive team that was trying to recover the body of a civilian who drowned the day before. The captain (Diver 4 and victim) ran low on air at a depth of 80 feet. After communicating with surface crews, he and his dive partner (Diver 3) ascended to a depth of 12-14 feet. He then experienced an uncontrolled out-of-air emergency and was unable to switch over to his or his partner’s redundant air system. Diver 3 tried unsuccessfully to assist Diver 4, but Diver 4 pulled Diver 3’s mask off forcing Diver 3 to kick away and swim to the surface while Diver 4 descended. According to the medical examiner, Diver 4 experienced an arterial gas embolism, most likely from holding his breath on ascent and subsequent rupture of alveoli and drowned. Mutual aid technical rescue divers located Diver 4 on the lake bottom and removed him approximately 2 hours later, and he was pronounced dead at the scene. Mutual aid technical rescue divers then recovered the civilian victim.

Contributing Factors

  • Pre-dive safety check
  • Air management
  • Uncontrolled out-of-air emergency (not being able to use redundant air supply)
  • Panic/rapid uncontrolled ascent while holding breath
  • Training and experience
  • SCUBA equipment issues affecting buoyancy control
  • Lack of a safety officer trained in technical rescue SCUBA diving during the event.

Key Recommendations

  • Fire departments should ensure that public safety divers always complete a pre-dive safety check (including adequate beginning air) with a qualified dive partner, witnessed by the dive safety officer.
  • Fire departments should ensure that incident commanders and group leaders maintain frequent and accurate air status and accountability on all divers. Additionally, no diver should be allowed to start a deep dive with inadequate air and adequate air reserves and resources at the dive site.
  • Fire departments should ensure that public safety divers are properly trained to recognize and have the repetitive skills training to control out-of-air emergencies and be able to use their redundant air before anxiety leads to panic.
  • Fire departments should provide annual training on dive hazards such as lung overexpansion injuries, out of air emergencies, emergency ascent procedures, including the dangers of breath holding, and emergency release of dive weights.
  • Fire departments should ensure that a dive safety officer properly trained in technical rescue SCUBA diving is on-scene and integrated into the command structure./strong>


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