FBI’s Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team (USERT)
Part 2: Making the Team
What does it take to join the FBI’s Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team (USERT)?
It’s certainly no easy feat—in addition to already being a special agent, USERT hopefuls must be certified divers and have exceptional physical and mental stamina. They must try out for the team and then complete rigorous basic training before embarking on a case.
Eligibility and Tryouts
Supervisory Special Agent Brian Hudson, USERT Program Manager, explained what it takes to qualify: "USERT is open to agents only. Once they are off probation, they are eligible to join. The main requirement is that you have a certification from an accredited diving organization, such as PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) or SSI (Scuba Schools International). As long as you’re a certified diver and have completed at least 10 dives, then you can try out for the team."
About This Series
This is the second part of a series giving you an inside look at USERT—from their rigorous training to tools of the trade.
- Part 1: Uncovering Underwater Secrets
- Part 2: Making the Team
Tryouts are held once a year. Hudson said that "the number of open slots is dependent on how many divers we lose during the year, usually due to people retiring, transferring, or leaving the team. Typically, each of the four dive teams will have one to two spots open."
The tryouts consist of a swim test (laps in the pool) and an underwater skills assessment. "You’ll go down in the water and demonstrate various skills, such as removing your mask and putting it back on, taking gear off underwater and putting it back on, as well as performing emergency procedures in recreational diving," said Hudson. "A lot of those skills are brought over from when you’re certified to scuba dive."
Next, candidates must complete an underwater obstacle course and other tasks—all while wearing a blacked-out mask that simulates a real-life scenario where there’s often no visibility. Finally, potential team members participate in a panel interview with current USERT divers.
After completing the above, candidates will learn if they’ve made the team. But even if they don’t, they’re encouraged to try out again the following year.
And while current USERT divers don’t need to participate in the annual tryouts, they must pass an annual swim test, attend at least three quarterly trainings, and complete a minimum of two operational dives each year. "We ask for a three-year commitment, but divers can stay on the team as long as they want if they meet the annual requirements," said Hudson.
"As you dive in water where there’s zero visibility, sometimes issues come up, and keeping calm and not panicking is the key to staying safe."
Brian Hudson, supervisory special agent and USERT program manager
Making it through tryouts is just the beginning of the USERT journey—the next step is to "turn qualifying candidates into USERT divers," said Hudson. "So, you did your recreational diving, but what we’re doing is definitely not recreational diving."
Trainees go through USERT Basic, an intense two-week certification course that’s held once a year in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. USERT Basic includes instruction in:
- Dry suit diving
- Underwater navigation
- Full-face mask diving
- Dive helmets
- Rescue diving
- Surface-supplied air
- Boat diving
- Emergency oxygen administration
- Public safety diving
- Deep diving
"You start in the dry suit and in the standard AGA facemask and learn the different search techniques we use," explained Hudson. "As the course goes on, we introduce new equipment and scenarios.
"For example, you’ll have the dry suit and the AGA, but you’ll be learning emergency procedures. Then we start adding metal detectors and then move to surface air supply systems. We also cover things like how to lift a car underwater. When you’re done, you’ll pretty much have touched on and learned every basic piece of equipment we use."
On the final day of training, USERT stages weapons in a Miami canal, where the trainees must successfully retrieve them. "It’s a dirty environment like they’re going to face once they’re on a real job,” explained Hudson, who also noted that criminals tend to dispose of evidence in places that aren’t easy to search. "We put divers to work. We have one instructor running the dive supervisor role, but the rest of the positions are covered by the trainees. They have to unload and set up the gear, conduct their dive, find the weapons we’ve thrown in, and then break everything down and clean it."
In addition to these physical and tactical skillsets, Hudson stressed that it’s also important for USERT divers to stay calm under pressure and problem solve: “As you dive in water where there’s zero visibility, sometimes issues come up, and keeping calm and not panicking is the key to staying safe.”
Throughout their careers with USERT, divers have opportunities to learn new skills, including courses in boat driving, SONAR (Sound Navigation and Ranging), and ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicles). Training is also provided to refresh skills and to prepare the team for specific diving environments in conjunction with their assignments—which could range from how to dive under ice to how to dive and swim through fast-moving currents.
"They’re perishable skills, so you need to keep training," said Hudson.
Meet the Agent: Supervisory Special Agent and USERT Program Manager Brian Hudson
Diving is what I’ve been doing for a while—I’ve been diving since about 2001 when I got certified in PADI, and I worked at a dive shop in college.
I joined the Bureau in 2011. My first office was Miami. Even though I didn’t join the Bureau to become a diver, it was lucky that my first office was Miami because that’s one of the four field offices that has a dive team [USERT]. I wanted a collateral duty and diving was something I enjoyed doing, so it was right up my alley to take the skillsets I had from diving and apply them to my work. It was an opportunity to "do what you love." The option to dive with the FBI was awesome.
I stayed on as a diver until about 2019 and then spent about two years as a USERT training coordinator. In 2021, I became the USERT program manager. When it comes to managing USERT, I have myself and two other supervisory special agents. We also have a forensic operational specialist who works with us. We manage the budget and act as the focal point for when field offices have requests for jobs—they send the requests to us and then we assign the teams and program training to prepare the divers.