Seldom receiving the recognition they deserve, the following article about the New South Wales Police Diving Unit was first published in ‘Professional Diver Journal’ in early 1996, shortly after the Unit celebrated their Diamond Jubilee as one of the World’s finest Search and Rescue Teams.
It’s all part of the job, a four-and-a-half hour hike through rugged bushland toting the diving and climbing gear needed to search for a possible drowning victim. Abseiling down the sheer face of a 95 metre gorge into the chest deep water of a fast flowing river, the team’s ultimate destination is the deep pool beneath a 30-metre waterfall. The victim’s body is recovered just 1 minute and twenty seconds into the underwater search and evacuated from the scene by a news helicopter. The search team, members of the New South Wales Police Diving Unit, return the way that they came. Another four-and-a-half hour trek.
There’s precious little glamour attached to the work carried out by this tight knit group of highly trained and motivated individuals, and hardly any glory. The NSW Police Diving Unit is there to carry out the dark, the dirty, the unsavoury and dangerous tasks that are an essential part of police work. But like all elite specialist units each member of the PDU is stamped with an air of quiet, unassuming confidence and pride.
In the ooze and slime of the dams, rivers and waterways of New South Wales, even the simplest task takes on a whole new dimension. In bone numbing waters where visibility ranges from zero to pitch black, touch is the only sense on which they can depend. Searching for bodies in conditions like these is no picnic. As one team member put it, “Placing your hand around something smooth and cold that suddenly moves is a real heart starter. We don’t suffer from clogged arteries or cholesterol problems.”
Every job is different, presenting its own difficulties and problems. It may be the hunt for forensic evidence in a murder investigation – a .22 bullet suspected of lying somewhere in the silt at the bottom of a thirty-metre deep dam: It may be the heart-wrenching search and recovery of a child’s body, victim of an accidental drowning; or an attempt to locate stolen property from the depths of a fast flowing river: but whatever their assignment the NSW Police Diving unit have a strong tradition to live up to and an imposing record of achievement to maintain.
Tracing its origins back to 1935, when Constable William Moulden, wearing a Siebe-Gorman Standard Dress borrowed from the Royal Australian Navy, recovered the body of a drowned man, the NSW Police Diving Unit has become internationally acknowledged as one of the finest search and recovery teams in the world.
With fifteen full time members, one full time technician, and two ‘reservists’ – constables who’ve successfully completed the course and are on call as needed from the water police – entry to the Police Diving Unit is based on hard earned merit, determination and guts.
Open to all members of the force who have completed their probationary period and who haven’t specialised in other areas of police work, applicants to join the Police Diving Unit are first required to complete a 200-metre swim followed by a stringent medical examination. Those that pass face ten of the toughest weeks of their lives.
Beginning with SCUBA and working through to surface demand equipment, 95% of the training takes place in “black water”, salt and fresh. Potential recruits are tested to the limits of their stamina and endurance. Tedious tasks that, on the surface are simply boring, achieve frustrating proportions when performed underwater in total darkness. In place of safety glass plywood templates ensure that the recruits work ‘blind’, hacksawing their way through a piece of railway line, or practicing the search techniques that they’ll later put into effect as members of the team.
Weekly written and oral examinations test each candidate’s progress and aptitude. A procedure that’s every bit as tough as the practical training. There’s no shame in failing to make the grade. Many candidates voluntarily withdraw from the course. Others fall victim to injuries associated with infectious cuts or ear problems. With no more than ten recruits to a class the failure rate for candidates is conservatively estimated to be in the region of 85%. A fact that causes many programmes to finish ahead of time because nobody was left to complete the course.
As an accredited Diver Training Establishment, the Police Diving Unit training programme is recognised by the Australian Diver Accreditation Scheme [ADAS]. Those successfully completing the gruelling ten week course become qualified Part III Commercial Divers [ the equivalent of the internationally recognised HSE Part 1 ]. The training doesn’t end there. All Police Divers complete a further TAFE course in Underwater Cutting and Welding and spend an extended period working with the Water Police learning to master all aspects of small boat handling. Every member of the PDU holds a Coxswain’s ticket as well as the Senior St John’s First Aid certificate.
On top of their already imressive achievement several members undertake hyperbaric medical support training and hyperbaric chamber operations at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, qualifying as Underwater Medical Technicians. Other team-members master abseiling, the use of pneumatic tools, 4-wheel driving and even ‘de-planing’ – jumping out of helicopters – while ‘fully booted and spurred’.
Much of the equipment used by the Police Diving Unit is modified to meet their specific needs and demands. Their Scuba equipment is based on inverted twin 50 cu ft steel cylinders using US Divers single hose first and second stage regulators. As most of their diving is carried out in poor visibility the visual monitoring of gauges is impossible. Police Divers, therefore, rely on the decanting system to regulate their air usage. Using wet-suits, masks and fins the unit recently dispensed with their Fenzy BCD’s in favour of a jacket style BCD that retains the independent inflation cylinder. Often working in polluted waters there’s an increasing move towards dry-suits and full body protection.
With a nominal operational depth limit of 50 metres, the unit also employs surface supplied equipment based around the KMB 10 and KMB 17B band masks. In those instances when voice communications are required the unit employs a Divator full face mask together with the OTS Buddy Phone system. They also have at their disposal underwater video cameras, with surface monitors, AGA sets for helicopter jumps; sonar; metal detectors; a Broco; heavy duty air lift bags and a two-man, Drager Duocom re-compression chamber.
As a mobile unit capable of operating anywhere in NSW, the PDU has its own purpose built truck capable of transporting all of their equipment to wherever it’s needed. After modifications this truck will soon be able to carry the unit’s new, transportable, Twinlock Therapeutic Recompression Chamber, built to their specifications by Cowans of Newcastle. Fitted with a Nato flange the Twinlock will allow ‘under-pressure’ transfers to be made from the Duocom chamber.
Constantly adopting new equipment providing it has a proven relevance to the scope of their operations, the PDU’s resident technician, Sergeant John Marshall, a man whose technical expertise is respected throughout the entire diving community, believes that the unit will have to seriously consider the use of mixed-gas, rebreather and ROV technologies, “to increase operational capability.” However, he cautions, “Any change will be deliberate and methodical after extensive testing and evaluation.”
Apart from the more ‘normal’ search and recovery tasks, the NSW Police Diving unit retains an investigative role in all diving deaths – whether recreational or commercial – occurring in New South Wales. The breathing gas mixture used by the victim is analysed at the government laboratories; equipment is disassembled and stripped down to ensure that it’s working properly and the officer investigating the death uses the gear to – as far as possible – re-create the fatal dive before submitting the findings of their investigation to the coroner.
Given the grisly nature of much of their work it comes as little surprise to learn that no one from the PDU dives for sport or pleasure. As one officer dryly put it, “There’s nothing worth going back to.”
Images courtesy of the Marketing and Media Branch of the NSW Police Service