Dive rescue plan needs more thought

Posted: Monday, July 24, 2000

At the last Juneau Assembly meeting, an apparently mundane topic was heard concerning transfer of some surplus dive equipment from the fire department to a local dive group to be used for dive ``recovery'' operations.

As the discussion of this topic progressed, it became obvious that the transfer of this equipment was actually symbolic of a dramatic change in the city fire and rescue department's mission. The group of volunteer divers who would receive the ``surplus equipment'' made it clear that they would not be providing a rapid response rescue effort - they would provide a body recovery service. In short, if someone is trapped underwater for whatever reason, this proposal would mean that our community will not attempt to save that person's life. We will have volunteers come to the site to recover the body when they are available.

Perhaps the most chilling outcome of this discussion was that it became clear the fire department currently has people on staff who are trained and have the equipment to perform rapid response dive rescues. By handing this equipment to the volunteer dive group, our community will give up the capability of saving the lives of people who are beyond the reach of those at the water's surface. Fortunately, the members of our assembly did not agree to this transfer at the meeting and requested more information to be heard at the July 24th meeting before they make a final decision.

Let's look at the primary reasons given for abandoning our current dive rescue capability:

It is too expensive.

Dive equipment and training is expensive, but so are fire rescue equipment and ambulances. Perhaps some or all of this expense could be paid for with funds from the Marine Passenger Fee. One of the most likely scenarios requiring a dive rescue would be if a floatplane flipped and trapped passengers inside. Another possibility would be if a vessel had a collision and rolled. Our visitors often travel over water and are likely to need dive rescue services at some point.

Currently rescue divers are not as well trained as they could be.

If this is true, it is a matter of establishing dive rescue as a higher priority. There is no doubt that our dive rescue crew could be very well trained if it were made a high priority.

There is a potential for litigation if rescues go wrong.

It is a tragic reality in our modern society that some will sue those who attempt to save their loved ones. I think it is more likely (admittedly I have no legal background) that someone would sue if their child drowned in a situation where the child could have been saved by a dive rescue team that was disbanded.

Most people who are trapped underwater die anyway.

This is perhaps the most chilling argument of all. Now that cellular phones have become common, it is likely that future 911 calls will be made from the scene as soon as accidents happen. Rescue divers could be on site within minutes of a person becoming submerged. If the rapid response capability is abandoned, people who had a realistic chance of survival will have none. When someone is trapped underwater seconds count and a slow response is a death sentence.

Let's step back for a moment and imagine the same logic that led to the proposal to abandon dive rescue was applied to fire rescue.

Obviously, fires are extremely dangerous and it is very expensive and risky to save people in burning buildings. Ambulances drive at high speeds, with sirens blaring, and are also dangerous. The liability of having an ambulance in an accident is so great, we should abandon the service. Perhaps we should simply have firefighters contain fires in buildings. If people are trapped inside, we could alert the local mortuary to dispatch a hearse to recover the bodies.

I fail to see any difference between the above scenario and the possibility of a child falling through the ice at Twin Lakes. If for some reason they are trapped under the ice, a diver could be on site in minutes and there is a realistic chance the victim could be saved. Without dive rescue, our response is reduced to body recovery. Certainly Juneau is a better place than that. Ideally, we could support our local dive club's desire to become better integrated into our community's emergency services system and retain (or improve) our rapid response dive rescue capability.

Greg Chaney is licensed to pilot 50-ton passenger vessels and has spent a lot of time on the water in Southeast Alaska. He has lived in Juneau since 1982.

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