Only with teamwork

Diving is teamwork. Divers always go out in fours. The working diver, a standby diver, and two tenders. This is a requirement – and a vital safety precaution. Because diving is a dangerous business due, for example, to underwater obstructions, vegetation and old fishing lines.

All the equipment has to be in perfect order. Hence the double safety rule. The working diver checks all his equipment meticulously. Then his teammate asks a series of questions: How much air do you have in your tank? Is the valve open? Have you got your knife and lead weights? And so on.

Only then may work begin. The classic scenario: a missing person in the water. A swimming accident, man overboard, or someone has fallen through the ice. The people in charge at the scene decide whether this is a surface rescue or whether divers need to be called in. If divers are called to the scene, it is often too late for lives to be saved. The alert chain is simply too long. The divers’ job is then one of recovery. Sometimes they are called out to provide technical assistance under water. A boat that has sprung a leak, for example.

Platform for all divers

"Technical assistance operations are especially challenging," says Marcus Haacke, a diving instructor with the Bremen fire service. "You never know what you’re getting into, and underwater you have to think fast and be a bit creative." Not long ago, a car plummeted into the river Weser. The driver was able to free himself, but we still had to get the car out.

It’s cold and dark underwater. Divers see with their hands. They feel their way along the bottom. Their only point of reference is the telephone line that links them to the tender. In the middle of the night, Haacke and his dive team first had to locate the submerged car, then attach the crane’s lifting gear to the vehicle, all underwater.

The Bremen divers are called out up to 10 times in a month. They practice for that while on duty. Diving is classed as a "secondary function". Whether a fire service has a dive team is a decision for the duty station. The question of cost comes up from time to time – not just in Bremen, but wherever there are dive teams. In 2001, the AGFFN was founded – the Northern Region Working Group for Fire Service Divers and Technical Services. This is an association of various diving groups from eight German regions, serving as a platform for all divers, irrespective of whether they work for the fire services, the police, the THW, the DLRG or other aid organizations.

Haacke is the deputy spokesman for the AGFFN. Together with chief spokesman Jörg Unverzagt, he is organizing the divers’ network showcase to be staged at INTERSCHUTZ in Hall 17. "Divers are essential," says Unverzagt. "Diving operations don’t happen every day, but if we don’t do it, nobody will." That’s his message, not just for the tradeshow audience.

Always ready to go

So every day involves practice. Haacke and his approx. 30-strong dive team in Bremen use every shift for boat training, improving their local knowledge, and doing practice dives in the waterways around Bremen – which means 30 kilometers of maritime shipping lanes, 10 kilometers of inland waterways on the Weser, and various bathing lakes. "We are like a second family," says Haacke. There is a very strong team spirit, and very little turnover in personnel. The men love their job.

In principle, anyone can become a diver in the fire service. A medical examination to comply with the pressure regulation is a requirement, as is regular cardio training. Candidates also have to be mentally fit for the task – which firefighters are anyway. All the same: "It’s not at all uncommon for well-trained tough guys to give up on diving," says Unverzagt. "The mask, the dark, cold water, the cramped working conditions, the heavy equipment, and then the unexpected encounters with underwater objects or fish – not everyone can cope with that."

In addition to swimming skills, the training program covers training on the equipment, giving technical assistance underwater, and acquiring specialized medical knowledge relating to diving. All the training modules have to be completed within two years. In Bremen the course lasts for three months – three intensive months. But it doesn’t end there. Divers are required to take 10 dives a year under simulated operational conditions, while diving instructors have to do 15.

AGFFN – the Northern Region Working Group for Fire Service Divers and Technical Services

This is another area where the AGFFN can help. It offers regular courses covering the theoretical and practical aspects of diving. Then there are the annual general meetings, where divers from all the various organizations get together to network and compare notes. The AGFFN makes its facilities available to more than 250 diving groups across the northern half of Germany. There is no formal membership as such. The offer is open to everyone.

What the divers do and what it feels like to go underwater in full diving gear – these are the topics to be featured at the AGFFN showcase at INTERSCHUTZ. Even if the plunge pool is a far cry from the reality of a call-out to a bathing lake on a cold December day, it gives visitors some idea of and will certainly help to instill respect for the important work done by divers.