Helping the Rescuers: A Look at Search and Rescue

Insight from the rescuers

The United States Coast Guard has primary responsibility for maritime search and rescue cases in coastal areas and national waters. Working closely with other federal, state and local agencies, the Coast Guard assists commercial and recreational users when they experience distress on the water.

With few exceptions, the Coast Guard's expertise in locating missing divers is focused on surface searches or after a diver is back to sea level. A diver is treated as a "person in the water," just as someone who unintentionally fell into the water while boating or fishing, but a diver is typically equipped with more tools to help with survival.

The Coast Guard's Seventh District Command Center in Miami, Fla., assists local units and agencies in locating missing divers and boaters. Seasonally adjusted, the Command Center assists with an average of one diver-related search case each month.
Following the Old Rules
Divers learn two essential rules from the first day of every dive course: Never dive alone, and dive your plan. Adhering to these rules greatly enhances a diver's chances of being found. Sean Connett, an experienced Search and Rescue (SAR) Controller at the Seventh District Command Center, has worked several diver-related searches in his 12 years on the job.

"Solo divers give us the least amount of information and the biggest delay in providing assistance," said Connett. In addition, sometimes divers leave a non-diver on the boat; that person may not know how to call for help, how to relay important information regarding gear and the nature of the dive or even how to operate the boat.

"Let someone reliable know your plan, and when they should be concerned or call for help," said Bruce Wright, the boating safety program manager for the Seventh District. He emphasizes the importance of establishing good float and dive plans any time you go out on or in the water. "Planning your trip and your dive and sticking with that plan helps your chances of recovery when the unexpected happens," said Wright. "It gives those looking for you the best place to start and improves your chances of recovery."

There are several important pieces of information that should be included in a diver's float plan.
Float Plan Essentials
  • Departure time
  • Destination
  • Estimated time of return
  • Size of boat
  • Size of motors
  • Fuel
  • Equipment
  • Other persons on board
  • Familiarity with the destination
  • Previous trouble with boat or motor
  • When assistance should be requested
Reducing the Search, Improving the Rescue

"We use an Initial SAR Checklist to gather as much information about the case as possible and focus our response," said Connett. "Knowing where the person was last seen, the time they were last seen and the gear that they have allows us to focus the search."

In order to narrow down the search, the SAR coordinator needs to know specific information including:

  • Number of people missing:
  • -Experience
    -Age, heath and condition
  • Time last seen
  • Location last seen (GPS coordinates, if possible)
  • Destination
  • Nature of the dive (snorkel, deep, drift, etc.)
  • Gear:
  • -Wetsuit (color, thickness and if the diver is wearing a hood)
    -BCD (color and condition)
    -Mask, fins and snorkel details
    -Potential signaling devices (lights, cameras, safety sausage, etc.)
    -Personal emergency position indicating radio beacon
The Diver’s Advantage
The diver has a lot more assets available to help the chances of survival. It is essential that as much of this equipment is retained as possible to improve the chances of being spotted. Many divers carry whistles or other sound-producing devices. These items, along with flashlights, cameras with flash, sea sausages or other inflatable signaling devices, help divers communicate with rescuers and direct the craft their way.

Normally, divers are better dressed for the environment with wetsuits or neoprene liners. According to Wright, these items not only aid in retaining body heat, they also often include bright colors that make detection in the water easier.

Divers also have their BCDs and tanks, both of which assist with buoyancy and create a larger, more visible "footprint" in the water. "Masks and snorkels can help keep the slash out of the diver's face, and the mask also helps reflect sunlight to signal rescuers," said Wright. "Fins help maintain buoyancy as well and are useful in splashing or signaling rescue crews."

It is essential that divers do their best to stay above water level as much as possible in order to improve the chance of discovery. If possible, having the dive flag and buoy ring makes a diver much easier to detect.
Planning a Search
When a call comes in to assist with a search case, the investigative work begins. Boat and aircraft crews are standing by to assist, but are called out into the field only when as much information as possible is gathered. Often, other mariners in the area are asked to assist with the search before Coast Guard assets can arrive on scene. Having someone on scene to assist with this information saves essential time and may be the difference in finding a missing person.

One of the primary considerations in planning a search is the diver's conditions and readiness for the unexpected. "When we receive a call to assist with a person in the water, we go through a checklist of items that will help us identify where to begin the search," said Connett. "Knowing where to search is key to improving the chance of a successful rescue."

Once the Coast Guard gathers enough information, search and rescue units are notified and the information is entered into "SAR Ops" software. SAR Ops helps determine where the tides, currents and waves may take a person, which influences where to send assistance and begin the search.
The Search

Using the information provided by the reporting source, the Coast Guard works with other agencies and mariners to begin the search. Broadcast calls are made requesting boaters or commercial traffic in the area to be on the lookout for persons in the water, and rescue boats or aircraft are launched by available agencies.

The starting point and pattern followed on a search can vary greatly depending on the location, currents in the area and weather. Enclosed rivers and coastlines normally start with a shoreline search, and wreck dives or off-shore searches require different patterns. Sea states and wave actions also affect the type of search pattern as well as the craft that may used to conduct the search.

Successful searches are usually the result of good information left with a responsible person in the dive plan, as well as timely, accurate reporting once an overdue or missing diver is noticed. Once a diver is located, it is essential to communicate with all concerned so that valuable resources can be readied for the next case.
About the Author
Commander Dave Allen was certified as an open water diver in 1982, the same year he enlisted in the Coast Guard. He previously served as Search and Rescue Center Supervisor in Guam, where he also attained PADI Master Diver qualifications.
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