FBI’s Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team (USERT)
Part 3: On the Job
Imagine being immersed underwater. The water is thick and muddy. Your suit is keeping you dry, but the frigid temperatures are making your fingers numb. All you can see is darkness.
This is a real-life scenario for divers who are part of the FBI’s Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team (USERT). They must be able to conduct underwater searches in all kinds of conditions, often regardless of visibility, temperature, and pollution. Proper diving gear and attire, as well as collaboration with other teams, are key for diver safety, and underwater search tools and evidence collection protocol help ensure successful search and recovery operations.
Gearing Up for a Dive
USERT divers wear specialized gear to help them maneuver underwater and to keep open lines of communication with their colleagues on the surface during an operation.
“We typically dive with full-face masks, which allow two-way communication between team members above and below the surface,” said Supervisory Special Agent and USERT Program Manager Brain Hudson. For additional insulation as well as head protection when overhead obstacles are present, divers wear steel Kirby Morgan Superlite 77 helmets, which weigh over 30 pounds on land.
Waterproof dry suits are designed to keep the divers warm in cold water and protect against pollution and other unpleasant water conditions that could present health and safety risks. The suits usually cover the head, body, and feet. “We try to keep as much dirty water off the divers as we can,” said Hudson. “Your dry suit and full-face mask or helmet will keep you protected, so really, the only part—hopefully—that’s going to get wet is your hands.”
When diving in icy conditions, divers wear additional dry suit layers for warmth. However, keeping the head and hands warm is the biggest challenge. “If it’s cold water or ice diving, you’re still going to lose your hand dexterity over time,” said Hudson. “There’s only so much you can do to keep your hands warm, even with additional dry gloves. Your head also gets cold.”
On land, the FBI’s Technical Hazardous Response Unit (THRU) helps USERT set up ZUMRO tents (air-inflatable shelter systems) with heaters to give divers a place to dress and warm up after a dive. “We also keep several turkey fryers going with warm water so divers can dip their arms in there and pour on gear to keep the gear from freezing on the surface,” said Hudson.
In contrast, when it’s warm, USERT and THRU set up shade tents to help keep the divers cool, ensuring there is plenty of drinking water available to maintain hydration as well as electrolyte packets to mix in for extra sustenance.
Safety Measures: Collaborating with the FBI’s Technical Hazardous Response Unit (THRU) and Operational Medicine Program
USERT relies on collaboration with other teams to ensure efficient and safe dives. As a result, there have been no serious injuries to USERT divers thus far.
“One of our great benefits of USERT is that we work really close with THRU and the Operational Medicine Program within the Bureau,” said Hudson. “We have paramedics in the field who have gotten special training in dive medicine. They are DMTs, or dive medicine technicians, which is an extra-level certification. When we deploy on missions and trainings, we always have one or two medical staff who specifically specialize in dive accidents and medicine.”
In addition to medical support, THRU helps USERT with operational tasks, including setting up auxiliary equipment and resources, like setting up heating tents for ice dives or clearing heavy underbrush to pave the way to the water’s edge.
Beneath the surface, divers must be aware of potential challenges that could arise while on the job.
Decompression sickness is a risk in both recreation and in search and recovery diving—during a rapid transition from a high- to low-pressure environment, gas bubbles in the body form and may cause joint pain, difficulty breathing, chest pain, paralysis, and confusion. The consequences could be fatal.
To mitigate this risk, divers follow protocols and schedules created by the U.S. Navy that designate how long divers can stay underwater at certain depths and control their ascent rate up to the water’s surface. Divers also conduct all dives with at least one dive medical technician and paramedic present.
USERT divers search for and recover items as small as shell casings and as big as shipwrecks. “We have a lot of tools in the toolbox—it really depends on what we’re looking for and what’s the best tool to find that,” said Hudson.
“Our first divers in the water are typically going to give a report of what the bottom surface is like,” said Hudson. “Is it hard-packed, or is it very silty? When our first diver gets down and puts their hand in the mud, how far can it extend before hitting a stopping point? Is the mud up to your fingertips, up to your elbows? These types of conditions are taken into consideration when we do our searches, so we know how much we need to dig.”