Five kilometres off-shore from Long Reef, on Sydney’s northern beaches, a handful of wrecks scuttled in 50-plus metres attract large numbers of recreational divers. For two technical divers attempting one of the deeper wrecks, a carefully planned dive turned to one fraught with problems when a BCD inflator valve malfunctioned. Already into decompression time the less experienced of the pair began a runaway ascent to the surface, missing all of his scheduled stops. Unable to halt the ‘getaway’, the second diver also ascended directly to the surface. Quickly rectifying his buddy’s equipment problem the lead diver indicated to the boat crew that the pair would return to depth and begin a schedule of emergency, in-water decompression.
A Police launch, responding to the dive boat’s radio call for assistance, quickly arrived at the scene and, having none of their own diving personnel on board, immediately summoned additional help from the emergency services. Within minutes the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter was airborne, the crew of four briefed in flight on the nature of the mission.
Standing off from the dive boat, so that the down-draught wouldn’t affect the vessel’s position, the helicopter’s Pilot maintained station metres above the waves while the Search & Rescue Diver, with full diving gear in place, launched himself into the ocean, followed, moments later, by a Doctor. While the SAR diver descended towards the pair, the Doctor, wearing mask, fins and a life-vest, swam to the boat to receive a detailed briefing from the crew.
Linking up with the divers at 15-metres and communicating by hand-signals, the SAR diver first assessed their level of consciousness and made a visual evaluation of their condition. Both were wearing twin cylinders with pony bottles and, having already exhausted their own gas supplies, were now sharing air from the emergency deco cylinder lowered to them from the boat. A few moments later they used up the last of their air supply. Indicating that they should remain at depth, the rescue diver handed over his own cylinder to the lead diver and carried out a free ascent to the surface.
Meanwhile the Doctor, using the Police launch’s communication system, had made arrangements for the two divers to be received at the Royal Australian Navy’s hyperbaric unit at HMAS Penguin, a facility specialising in the treatment of diving related illnesses. With the LSRH helicopter briefed and standing by, the SAR diver free dived down to bring the two divers back to the surface.
Working on critical time factors and unwilling to face the delay caused by three separate winch recoveries the Doctor swam to the lowered line where the SAR diver hooked all three to the static line. With a diver either side of the Doctor, so that he could monitor their condition and control the lift, all three, slung beneath the aircraft, were quickly airlifted to the helipad and radio base at Long Reef. There the two divers were taken onboard the helicopter, stabilised and put on O2 for the short, low level, flight to the naval base. Waiting personnel quickly transferred the pair to the chamber where – on a seven-hour schedule – they were successfully treated for the effects of omitted decompression and possible embolisms.
A classic incident illustrating the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter’s capabilities, the Long Reef mission was one of hundreds attended to each year by the Service. For the Rescue Helicopter Service’s Diver Training Officer it was justification that constant training and the demands of maintaining a high state of readiness deliver results.
Making its first flight in 1973, (as the then, “Wales Rescue Helicopter Service”) former SAR Diver, John Bourne, designed a diving equipment package intended for use in rescue and body recovery work from a helicopter and implemented a comprehensive training programme for its practical use in adverse conditions.
“During the first ten years”, recalls John Bourn, “the diver jumped from the helicopter and was recovered on the static line. Now the diver is put in a harness and lowered down gently. It’s a safer and a more controlled entry. In the early days when you’re pioneering a method you can be a bit naughty and bend the rules! But when an aircraft costs $2 million bucks, and you’re answerable to aviation departments, then you have to comply with safety standards.”
Designed for function the rescue diver’s dress consists of: A wet suit, designed with extra pockets to hold flares, sea dye packs and search equipment; a full body, water rescue harness – chosen so as not to inhibit movement – with a lift point high up at the front of the harness enabling the diver to be winched in and out of the helicopter even when wearing full gear; a 400 litre, pony cylinder, held in place by a harness with two quick release points, one on the shoulder and the other on the belt; a single regulator with simple contents and depth gauges; a round, low-volume mask, snorkel and – because BCD’s aren’t worn – a small weight belt. To streamline the diver’s configuration and reduce the risk of snagging full foot fins, held firmly in place by fixi-palms to prevent “de-flippering” when exiting from the helicopter, are preferred over the open-heel model with strap buckles. A knife is worn on a waist belt where it remains within easy reach.
The divers also carry three colour-coded search lines – each about 10-metres in length, marked in 3-metre increments, with a loop on one end and a clip on the other so that they can be joined together and/or attached to a surface buoy to indicate the diver’s depth and position; a smaller marker buoy with reel and detachable lead weight to identify a search object’s position; and a small grapple that can be used underwater to latch onto marine growth in areas of strong currents or which, with a safety line attached, can be hurled up onto the rocks to assist in water exits. Although a variety of tools are available to the divers, weight is always a consideration. Carried in a small holster pouch the Swedish designed, SOS Tool incorporates a hammer, lever, axe, big jaw, several different sized saw blades and a giant version of a can opener useful for ripping into sunken vehicles. A lightweight, versatile device that can be quickly configured to suit any task.
“It’s all simple and inexpensive gear”, says Crew Chief, Paul Newlands, “that’s practical and lightweight.” An obvious advantage in those situations where direct helicopter access is denied because of a patient’s close proximity to a cliff face and where one of the divers may be required to exit the water by running up onto the rocks.
“Our dive system has been set up to save life.” Paul Newlands continued. “It’s the most important aspect of our work. We carry out a range of jobs; from boating accidents, boats overturned or wrecked on the coastline; aircraft accidents – in a recent incident where a DC3 went in at Botany Bay we had a diver on the scene and in the water within 15 minutes – to rescuing fishermen washed off rocks and beaches.
“We always attempt to save life. But we’ve also found that if we can get a diver into the area quickly then we can fix an object’s position with a marker buoy. It sounds pretty gruesome but it gives us a better chance of finding a body and speeds up the time of life insurance pay outs. It helps to put the family’s mind at ease and ensures that they’re not financially disadvantaged.
“We fill a huge gap in the emergency services that probably isn’t fully recognised. We don’t duplicate the job of the police divers. They’re an elite group, experts in extended search, extended diving operations and in deep diving situations where we won’t go. Because Police diver response time varies according to their work load – it may be between one and four hours -we try and gain initial control of a situation so that we can hand over to them as soon as they arrive and, hopefully, save a lot of time.
“We carry out in excess of 400 missions a year of which between 50 and 70 are aquatic missions and probably about one a month involves diving. Those missions have typically been boats overturned or incidents involving the rescue of, or search for, divers.” He concludes.
Each mission flown by the Life Saver Rescue Helicopter is different, the circumstances surrounding each incident helping to determine the crew composition and, because of the weight consideration, what gear is taken. An equipment room to one side of the spacious hangar contains medical equipment, canyon packs; survival clothing, roping, water rescue and boat access equipment, pony bottle packs, and larger dive bins all neatly packed, labelled and ready to go. There’s even a training wall for honing the team’s climbing skills!
The first level of response in an aquatic mission is always by Crew Divers who hold recreational diving qualifications. In situations that require more specialised diving expertise the Service can call on the help of highly qualified volunteers – designated by call sign as ‘SAR Diver (number)’ – who hold full Commercial Diving qualifications.
Although adhering to established safe diving practices there is always an element of risk when launching from a helicopter with a full set of diving gear. Such risks are minimised by comprehensive training programmes that simulate a variety of rescue and recovery scenarios and, because of the Service’s close ties with the Surf Lifesaving Association, the availability of an inshore or offshore rescue boat at the accident site.
Many of the tasks undertaken by the SAR Divers entail searching for, and recovering, the bodies of accident victims, grim assignments that they may be called upon to perform at a moments notice, any hour of the day or night.
The above is an edited version of a full story first appearing in ‘Professional Diver Journal’ – a magazine that I co-published and edited – in 1997. Although it is now somewhat historical in content, it has been reproduced here to raise awareness of the activities undertaken by Rescue Service personnel.