September 16, 2010 -- On an early August morning, members of Portland Fire & Rescue’s (PF&R) Dive Team suited up for a dive drill in the Columbia River near Hayden Island. PF&R maintains a full-response Dive Rescue Team with 25 active members with approximately eight members on each shift. This team is supplemented by divers from Gresham Fire & Emergency Services. By sharing resources, Portland and Gresham provide for consistent coverage of waterways during water-related incidents in both jurisdictions.
PF&R divers are permanently assigned to other full-time duties and are located at stations throughout Portland. This allows PF&R to dispatch experienced divers to rescues on more than 60 miles of local waterways as quickly as possible.
The Dive Team responds to an average of 80 incidents each year, including water rescue and recovery, vehicles in the water, drowning victims, and jumpers from the City’s numerous bridges.
Lieutenant Rich Tyler, a senior member of Portland’s Dive Team, notes that the team is using new and improved communications equipment. Headsets are worn by surface support team members, allowing them to maintain constant contact with the diver while underwater. Communications literally run from the team member’s headset, through the diver’s safety line, and into the diver’s mask.
This is critical since the diver’s safety line enables him/her to reach a depth of 100’ underwater and they often encounter dangerous obstacles. Lieutenant Tyler recalled one particular instance where he was diving in dark conditions and became trapped inside a shopping cart on the river’s bottom that was flipped upside down and literally became a cage. Because of his experience, he was able to back out of the shopping cart despite the swift moving current and continue on his mission. Another diver relayed an incident where another diver became stuck in a sewage pipe while recovering a body.
These examples illustrate how Portland’s waterways can be dangerous for divers. In addition to the fact that there is zero visibility in most waterways, there are also many obstacles that divers can encounter below the surface.
The Dive Team operates in three basic modes – rescue mode, recovery mode, and standby mode.
Rescue Mode - A dive incident is in rescue mode during the first 30 minutes where there is a reasonable possibility of saving a life. Rescue mode may be extended to 60 minutes in some circumstances, such as if the patient is a small child, the water temperature is less than 40 degrees, or the patient may be trapped in an underwater air pocket.
During rescue mode, it is justifiable for the Dive Team to assume more risk to save a life and the first-arriving Dive Team member may dive solo under certain circumstances.
Recovery Mode – A dive operation is in recovery mode after 30 minutes has elapsed since the individual was last seen on the water’s surface or if it is determined that there is no chance of saving a life consistent with the circumstances on scene. A minimum of four divers, plus dive support must be on scene to ensure safety during a recovery operation since assuming a higher level of risk is not justified.
Standby Mode – The Dive Team may also be activated during firefighting operations on waterways to assist any firefighters who may have fallen into the water. This is common at marina and houseboat fires.
PF&R’s Dive Rescue Team has experience in many types of water rescues. All of our divers have completed the Dive Rescue I certification through Dive Rescue International and have Advanced Diver certification. This experienced, highly trained team is proud to put their experience and diving expertise to work to serve the citizens of Portland and our surrounding communities on local waterways.
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