Working Under Pressure: Dive Jobs

Living the dream

The FBI Dive Team
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has one of the most unique and elite search and recovery dive teams in the world. It's comprised of only 50 members in four field offices located in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Miami. Unlike local underwater search and recovery teams, the FBI's Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team (USERT) has worldwide jurisdiction to conduct underwater crime scene investigations and complex searches anywhere the FBI has an interest or is requested. As such, team members must have their gear and passports ready at all times, prepared to mobilize on a moment's notice even to remote and dangerous locations.

Although the FBI USERT's primary goal is evidence recovery, it also participates in humanitarian missions and supports local police work throughout the United States and abroad. USERT usually works in extremely dangerous and hostile environments and uses state-of-the-art tracking equipment such as an $85,000 global positioning system (GPS). During a mission, USERT members take photographs, diagram and survey scenes, gather fingerprints, recover DNA, gather and process the smallest of clues and more. The team coordinates with the FBI Laboratory and assists both local and international law enforcement agencies.
Only the Best
USERT members are highly trained and experienced FBI Special Agents as well as other specialists who are sent to crime scenes to secure the area and gather and process physical evidence. These individuals also fulfill a variety of other nondiving functions: anti-terrorism, explosives, hostage negotiation, forensic photography and organized crime investigation.

The range of diving experience of USERT candidates runs the gamut from entry-level divers to those with military-diving backgrounds. Only the best make the cut: Out of a dozen qualified applicants each year, only one or two may be selected.

To be a member of the FBI dive team, candidates must have at least two years' experience as a Special Agent and an entry-level certification from a recognized training agency. Applicants must also complete a basic medical questionnaire and undergo additional dive-related medical tests. In addition to the medical tests performed on all FBI agents during their annual physical, dive team members must have chest X-rays and lung-capacity tests.

Once accepted into the program, applicants are put through rigorous water and scuba skills in the pool. Because a majority of the team's diving is done in black water, candidates are required to complete an underwater obstacle course with blacked-out masks to determine their overall comfort in the water.

From there, USERT team members undergo training from within and outside the bureau to prepare for the environments in which they will be deployed, including under-ice operations, black water, pollution, varying degrees of current and depths (the maximum depth within which the team conducts investigative work is 130 feet). Because of the increased concern with terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001, the team now undergoes an underwater post-blast course in addition to metal detector training, advanced sonar techniques, and pier and hull searching.
On Call

Before arriving at a dive site, DAN helps the team leader locate the
nearest recompression chamber, and the DAN Emergency
Hotline (+1-919-684-9111) and the Medical Information Line
are considered valuable resources.
USERT has access to a large variety of equipment, ranging from helicopters, planes, Zodiacs, a Boston Whaler, state-of-the-art underwater side-scan sonar units and metal detectors, hand-held GPS units, surface-supplied diving rigs wired for communication, lift bags capable of raising a 2-ton vehicle, hand-held underwater still and video cameras, drop-video cameras, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and underwater scooters. On a typical out-of-town operation, the team will ship more than 2,000 pounds of equipment to the site.

Although much of the work done by USERT is covert, a number of missions involve large-scale events that attract media coverage. One such recent mission was the January 2009 "Miracle on the Hudson," when U.S. Airways Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger made a successful emergency water landing on the Hudson River. Soon after the jet touched down, the FBI dive team was on site using sophisticated sector-scan sonar to locate the plane's engine in 60 feet of freezing-cold, murky water.

"It was extremely challenging," said Michael Tyms, New York City USERT team leader. "Huge chunks of ice were floating down the river, knocking over sonar equipment and banging into the boats, which threw the divers off position. The search and recovery team also had to contend with ice and debris rushing down the river at them." The mission, however, was successful.

USERT's elite divers and sector sonar also helped sort through the debris following the I-35 Mississippi River bridge collapse in Minneapolis in August 2007, a catastrophe that killed 13 people, injured 145 others and plunged dozens of cars into the Mississippi River. Within hours of the collapse, USERT divers from New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles were on the scene to assist the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office in locating forensic evidence. Faced with the hazards of zero visibility and massive entanglement, USERT divers managed to take 43 different sonar images, which the topside team pieced together and superimposed on a large overhead view to produce a large-scale recreation.
USERT in a Post-9/11 World
Since Sept. 11, the FBI's budget, resources and training protocols have increased. According to Special Agent Tyms, "All the ships coming into New York City and New Jersey harbors are potential targets for terrorist attacks." USERT has met this challenge with post-bomb-blast training and an expanded ability to search ports, harbors and the hulls of ships. Additionally, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) now follows a well-rehearsed protocol to call the FBI in cases where there's any suspicion of terrorism aboard vessels or aircraft. The new USERT team in Quantico, Va., will also be a major asset in supporting the existing teams. The USERT members' top-notch expertise, equipment and determination stand ready to play their continuing role in ensuring our country's safety.
More Dive Jobs
Aquarium Dive Safety Officers
Certified Hyperbaric Technicians
Cirque du Soliel's "O" Aquatics Team
Disney Divers
Golf Ball Divers
Hyperbaric Medicine
Maritime Archaeologists
Navy Divers
Photo/Video Pros
ScubaRadio Mermaids

© Alert Diver — Winter 2011