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Career Firefighter/SCUBA Diver Drowns While Searching for Civilian in an Industrialized River—Illinois


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

F2018-09 Date Released: July 28, 2021

Executive Summary

On May 28, 2018, a 46-year-old career firefighter/SCUBA diver drowned while searching for a civilian who fell off of a boat into an industrialized river. At 1951 hours, SCUBA Team 687, Fast Boat 688, Ambulance 66, and Helicopter 682 were dispatched. Two divers (Diver 1 served as a stationary underwater line tender, while Diver 2 searched in a circular pattern) deployed from the fire department helicopter, which hovered about 5 feet above the river. After jumping in, the two divers swam on the surface to a civilian boat to get a last-seen point from the missing civilian’s party. The two divers then descended to the bottom and commenced a search.
The dive supervisor arrived at 2005 hours on the south shoreline, then contacted the divers via a underwater radio and directed them to surface to reposition them. During the second dive, the dive supervisor requested an air check, and Diver 1 reported 1400 pounds per square inch (psi) and Diver 2 (the victim) reported 1200 psi. They were instructed to complete their search pattern and surface. The fire department’s fast boat arrived on scene with relief divers. The dive supervisor instructed the fast boat to pick up the helicopter divers and deploy their divers. A police boat that was on scene prior to the fast boat was near the divers when they surfaced, but the fast boat informed the police boat that it would pick up the divers. After the two divers surfaced and came together, Diver 1 was assisting Diver 2 because it appeared that Diver 2 was having difficulty maintaining positive buoyancy. The police boat threw a life ring toward the divers. The fire department’s fast boat instructed the divers to come to its boat and drove the boat toward the divers, causing the police boat to relocate away from the divers.
The divers then started to drift in a circular pattern toward the bow of the fast boat. Diver 1’s hands were on the hull, and Diver 2 simultaneously pulled Diver 1’s mask off. While Diver 1 inflated his buoyancy compensating device, Diver 2 disappeared under the water. Two divers from the fast boat and police divers were deployed. The fire department’s rapid intervention team divers on the shoreline also were deployed via a rapid deployment craft. Approximately 8 minutes later, Diver 2 was located by the police boat diver. Diver 2 was brought on board the police boat and was transferred to paramedics onshore. Advanced life support measures were performed, and Diver 2 was transported to a local hospital, where Diver 2 was pronounced dead. The civilian drowning victim was recovered the next day farther down the river by the police marine unit.

Contributing Factors

  • Air management
  • Fundamental SCUBA skills
  • Natural gas line explosion
  • Buoyancy control (inability to maintain positive buoyancy)
  • Members unaware of distress
  • Multiple agency integration and cooperation.

Key Recommendations

  • Fire departments and public safety dive agencies should ensure regular training on fundamental dive skills, such as air management, buoyancy control, redundant air and out-of-air procedures
  • Fire departments and public safety dive agencies should ensure that incident commanders, dive group leaders, and members maintain situational awareness, accountability, and frequent and accurate air status on all divers
  • Fire departments and public safety dive agencies should ensure all public safety divers use dive computers
  • Fire departments, standard-setting organizations, public safety dive agencies, and SCUBA manufacturers should consider adding heads-up displays in all full face mask SCUBA because of frequent zero-visibility/silt-out conditions.
  • Fire departments and public safety dive agencies should ensure that a properly trained dive safety officer is on scene and integrated into the command structure
  • Fire departments and public safety dive agencies should recognize public safety SCUBA diving as a high-risk/low-frequency event and ensure that public safety divers are properly trained, equipped, and supported to perform dives; training and standard operating procedures/standard operating guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) should include the regional dive and water rescue team(s) who regularly respond with interagency cooperation
  • Fire departments and public safety dive agencies should ensure that the helicopter SOPs/SOGs address diver in distress situations when divers are deployed prior to the arrival of shore and/or marine units
  • Fire departments and public safety dive agencies should ensure that communications equipment is reliable and has interoperability
  • Standards-setting organizations should consider developing and adopting national consensus standards for Public Safety Diver (PSD) and equipment that address initial and refresher training and respirator performance.

Additionally, governing municipalities (federal, state, regional, and local) should:

  • Work with civilians to educate them on the hazards of gas leaks and the need to immediately evacuate when public safety workers (fire and police) direct them to do so


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