Dive/Rescue Series: Rescue vs. Recovery

Dive/Rescue Series: Rescue vs. Recovery



A carload of teenagers out for a joyride drive off a pier, plunging into 15 feet of cold, dark, murky water (black water).

Rescue units are called to the scene. It is immediately determined that the exact point of vehicle entry is known; the victims have been underwater for 22 minutes; the water temperature is 63°F; and diver visibility will be between zero and six inches.

Question: Is there a chance of making a rescue? Not just a recovery, but a rescue?

Answer: Most definitely—with the proper training and procedures.

This article begins a series on dive/rescue training methods and techniques that can be used for operating in black as well as white water (clear water).


Since rescue is the theme, let’s start by discussing just what a rescue means as opposed to a recovery. A rescue is a save, a revival of a lost underwater victim. A recovery is simply locating and removing the body of a victim—and there is nothing wrong with feeling a need to relieve a family’s grief by bringing a missing child back for burial.

Coordination, cooperation, and intense training/communication are the keys to a successful dive/rescue and not merely a recovery.

Photo by wait Hendrick

Granted, an underwater rescue is one of the more difficult tasks we know. Difficult, but not impossible. And the issue of attitude can often make the difference between a rescue and a recovery.

Relatively slow response times, confusing and time-consuming preparations to enter the water, and unprepared search systems and underwater operational methods all reflect an attitude of recovery, not rescue.

After my in-water experience of 30 years, I find that I have this inner need to use my years of experience with in-water operations to establish procedures and training that will result in more rapid and successful rescue/recovery. Looking back at the water’s edge and seeing my own son impatiently watching me performing my father’s skills, I thought things haven’t changed much over the years. I was wrong.

Although many of today’s underwater search patterns and safety procedures are similar to those used 20 years ago, the knowledge and information gathered and learned over those years makes a difference between yesterday and today, between an attitude of recovery and an attitude of rescue.

Today, we know that certain types of water combined with temperatures of below 70°F, a rapid response, a well-prepared deployment, and proper and immediate first aid procedures will, in most cases, allow us to save and revive the victim. Studies done by Dr. Martin Nemeroff at the University of Michigan have proven that lifesaving procedures can successfully be performed on victims who have been submerged up to 40 minutes (and perhaps even a little longer). The value of rapid deployment techniques, proper search methods, cold water resuscitation, and secondary drowning procedures must be known by all emergency response personnel, from the first responder to the emergency room physician.

Of course, this positive attitude and information is only part of the successful rescue battle. Dive/rescue teams as well as emergency medical service (EMS) units must be completely and thoroughly trained in their professions —and communications between underwater rescuers and EMS personnel is a vital part of this training. The diver may understand the needs of a drowned victim while only the emergency medical technician has the training and legal position to implement true life support. Only through combined efforts can we make the total rescue package work.

Rapid deployment of divers at the scene is a must for successful water rescue operations.Coordination and planning of the rescue operation are vital functions for a successful dive/rescue mission.

Photos by Walt Hendrick

The staffing operations of the backup dive team, line tenders, and emergency service personnel make for a smooth operation.

These combined efforts must include support agencies as well. When a rescue is a possibility, every minute counts. Today’s inwater rescue teams cannot afford to wait for permission from authorized agencies to dive. Nor can they waste time gearing up and gathering information after their arrival at the scene.

With training and practice, the donning of full diving gear, including either dry suit or wet suit with harnesses, tending lines, and all other necessary equipment, can and must be accomplished within five minutes. And, if the interior of the apparatus permits, gearing up can be done en route.

Information gathering, too, can be done en route. Radio your dispatcher to contact a unit already at the scene to mark the in-water location of the incident, to determine how many people are involved in the accident, and to hold any witnesses until the arrival of the dive team. Water conditions can also be learned en route by contacting the dispatcher, U.S. Coast Guard, fire department marine division, etc. Phone numbers and nearest locations of emergency facilities (such as hyperbaric chambers) should be on hand.

Remember, a rescue doesn’t happen by accident. It takes thorough training, continued practice, and the cooperation of all involved agencies.


Since this article series is intended to hold out hints on preparing and training an in-water rescue team, let’s start by examining and perhaps bettering our operation of one of the most basic and negative pieces of diving equipment—the weight belt.

It’s been my experience that other than keeping the weight belt clear from all entanglements, few students have a preference for or training in how it goes on and off.

Do you really care which way you put on or take off your weight belt? If your answer is no, then perhaps we can persuade you to begin using a right-hand release. If your answer is yes, but you prefer the left-hand open, then perhaps we can justify your changing.

Before we present our case, let’s just quickly review the weight belt donning procedure for setting up a right-hand release. Grasp the weight belt buckle in your left hand and swing the belt around your body. Affix the tongue in the buckle with your right hand.

For several reasons, most of the rescue approaches being taught in diving today put the rescuer to the left side of the victim and have him holding, or rather supporting the victim with his left hand. The first reason is that the correct first aid position for most diving related injuries requiring mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is for the victim to be rolled to the left (toward you) so that the heart is in the lower position.

Second, the victim in the water is buoyant, and therefore it requires little strength to hold him afloat, something that can be easily done with the left hand. Since most of us are right handed, we should reserve this stronger arm for the hard work, such as holding on to a boat.

The third reason, and one that emergency personnel may not readily consider, is if your rescue/dive partner is in need of assistance. Being on his left will put the oral inflator of his horse collar or jacket type buoyancy compensator directly in front of you (since the oral inflator is on the left-hand side of these buoyancy compensators; however, Fenzy, a manufacturer of buoyancy compensators, puts the oral inflator on the right). Now you can rapidly inflate the victim’s probably deflated buoyancy compensator, give mouth-to-mouth, and release the 20-40 pound weight belt around his waist with your right hand.

Now what about your own weight belt? About 80% of fatal scuba accidents are the result of divers drowning because they were unable to release their weight belts. We know that the release of the weight belt is not an easy process during a true emergency. However, if I were a victim, I would prefer that my rescuer had a clear path to his weight belt buckle and didn’t have to engage in a frantic scratching attempt to locate and correctly open the “quick release.”

In most cases, with a right-hand release and with the victim held in the rescuer’s left hand, a simple movement with the right hand across the body (left to right) will actuate the buckle to its open position. This lets the rescue become a more controlled situation and saves valuable seconds.

Think about it.

In future issues, the strategies, tactics, and procedures necessary for an efficient and successful dive/rescue operation will be addressed by Walt Hendrick.

No posts to display