Written by Kathleen Campbell
In recreational scuba diving, the rule is to never dive alone. In black water rescue diving, the rules go out the window.
“As my dive instructor used to say, ‘Why would I want to lose two of you?’” says Debbie Spann, former Fire Chief of Old Salem Fire Rescue in Greensboro and creator of its dive team. As its name implies, black water diving refers to any dive where there is absolutely no visibility – where the water is black in every direction and it is impossible to see as far as a hand in front of your face.
“Lake Oconee is as black as black can be.” Spann recalls many times when she sent into the lake for a recovery mission, completely alone in zero visibility waters because it was too risky to send down more than one diver.
“We take lights,” says Thomas Smith, Chief Officer of the Dive Team. “Sometimes they help and sometimes they don’t. You do a lot more by feel than you do by see.”
Dive teams have become an important added resource for public safety and vital to many police investigations, as was seen last year when the State of Georgia’s police dive team scoured Lake Oconee for evidence related to the murders of Russell and Shirley Dermond. Any team diving in black water conditions faces complex challenges and tough decisions – most of which make the difference between life and death.
When the Old Salem Dive Team is called to a scene, they first defer to the law enforcement officer in charge. In the case of a missing person, for example, they talk to witnesses and emergency contacts of the missing person to make sure nothing has been overlooked. They scour the shore and any nearby wooded areas. They ask questions to pinpoint the exact location; are there three points of reference where the body was last seen? Is the dam open? (If Georgia Power is running the lake, the water will flow north to south and the body will have been pulled by the current). What can divers expect beneath the surface in this particular area? Once this has been assessed, the dive instructor in charge has decisions to make. How many divers should he send down? What search and rescue techniques will be most efficient? Where should they even be looking?
And making these calls is not always easy.
“This lake has unique issues to it,” says Smith. “It’s got flooded forests, it’s got fences and barbed wires. There are parts of the lake where there’s 50 foot of trees and you’re in the middle of a forest.”
Lake Oconee is a manmade lake, built in 1979 when Georgia Power constructed the Wallace Dam to flood the Oconee River. It coats almost 19,000 acres of what used to be mostly farmland. There are still stone houses, roads, and abandoned cars submerged in the lake’s mysterious depths.
If recovering a body in flatter, more predictable areas, the dive team can utilize up to ten of its volunteers, tethering them together in a line at the lake’s bottom to systematically scan a large chunk of the lake. In areas with fewer obstacles – and more narrow search parameters – several divers can be tethered to a central object in the lake and search in gradually expanding circles. But searching in an underwater forest is a whole different battle.
“Georgia Power knows where [the trees] are. They’ve got it marked,” says Smith, “but if you’ve got a fisherman who falls in there, that’s a whole lot you’ve got to work through.”
In an underwater forest, divers cannot use a circle search or a line search; it is too easy for rope to get tangled in trees. In these situations, only one diver can go down, tethered to the boat, using a two-way communication mask to talk to volunteers on the surface. Because it is black water diving, rescuers have to rely almost entirely on their sense of touch.
“We have to do a lot of practice getting stuck, and getting unstuck,” says Smith,
“because down there, in the dark, you could not know which way is up. You could be inverted and not even know it.”
Because of these potential dangers, extensive training is required. Unlike Smith, Spann was not a certified diver when she started the dive team.
“None of us were divers,” she says of team members Jay Fowler and Chris Peters – the only two remaining original members of the ten-person volunteer group. “We had to start from the bottom with training.” Spann, Smith, Fowler, and Peters underwent open water training, advanced diver training, police diver academy training, and rescue diver training. They also took certification classes in nitrox, first aid, and recovery diving. It took a lot of work, and a lot of start-up funding by the fire department.
“It’s expensive equipment,” says Smith. “Once you have the equipment, the maintenance cost isn’t bad, but to get it all, it’s an investment.” Though the fire department already owned a fire boat for waterfront emergencies, it had to purchase tanks, weights, dry suits, and regulators for its ten divers; the two-way communication masks alone cost $1,500 apiece. Even then, divers had to assume financial responsibility for the other 70 percent of their equipment, including wetsuits, buoyancy control vests, and fins. But Spann believed in the program’s importance, and pushed through the initial financial burden.
“We had people drowning in our lake,” she says. “Mostly older fishermen who couldn’t swim. We thought, ‘What if that was your mom or dad? What if there wasn’t anyone to find them?’”
Though body recovery was the original intention of the dive team, it has provided many other services – and not just to Lake Oconee. The volunteers have assisted stranded boaters, recovered sunken boats and cars, and found lost jewelry. They have found a murder weapon that was thrown off a bridge, which later helped convict the perpetrator. They have been called to Putnam County, Rockdale County, Morgan County, and even in waterfront locations in South Georgia. In the past year, they were called to the Union Point County reservoir – which contains the drinking water for all of Union Point – to locate the body of a missing man.
“There’s not many dive teams in Georgia,” says Smith. “We’re always on call. We go wherever we’re needed.”
The lack of dive teams is due to the fact that, in most counties, the teams are not worth the increased expense. Even Lake Oconee’s dive team only gets a couple of calls every year. And, since all team members are volunteers with day jobs (mostly EMTs and firemen), it can be difficult to maintain a substantial membership. The current dive team for Lake Oconee has just three of its original members from when the program was started in 2005. Training for black water recovery diving is extensive, and refresher courses are a must for maintaining an optimal skill level.
Fire chief Jay Harrison however, is optimistic, hoping to recruit more recreational divers into rescue and recovery efforts. Smith is now a certified instructor, who can teach for the police diver academy and certify rescue divers.
“If a diver comes to me with their basic and advanced certification, I can do the rest,” says Smith. He has become a semi-regular lecturer for the National Certification of Police Divers.
Emergency training includes decontamination exercises, extensive compass and navigation training, and learning how to get in and out of tight spaces. Thermoclines (drastic changes in water temperature) cause concern for hypothermia and other medical issues, and divers must be wary of decompression sickness caused by an uncontrolled ascent. Entanglement and disorientation is a high risk in low visibility waters, but the greatest risk?
“Death,” says Smith simply. “You could die.”
Spann adds that rescue and recovery isn’t for every diver, certified or not. “There is a big difference here between diving and black water rescue. With recreational diving, I only have to worry about me and my buddy. With black water, I have to be ready for rescue even if I’m not the diver underwater. Like I said, Lake Oconee is black as black can be, and this is a team sport.”