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Working blindly at the scene of an emergency, clock ticking, one hand stretched out for protection from metal and other debris tossed into the harbor for more than a century, deep below the cold, pitch-black waters of the Los Angeles Harbor, is the specially trained LAFD Dive Team. These first responders see opportunities where others see danger. They risk their lives to save others.
This Los Angeles City Fire Department Special Operations 24-hour emergency team, is the largest in the world. Eighteen elite frontline divers, also known as underwater firefighters, work in hostile environmental conditions. Seasoned experts in emergency management and disaster prevention, they’re charged with protecting the people and Port of Los Angeles, the busiest port in the country.
Created 57 years ago, trained divers were sent beneath the water to fight fires under more than 28 miles of wooden wharf in the harbor. Today, in addition to the divers, firefighter crews operate the harbor-based fleet which includes five fireboats. At 105-feet long, Fireboat #2 is equipped with a water cannon and it’s the most powerful marine firefighting boat in the world.
Captain Tom Haus supervises the program and says the team responds to all 911-related emergency calls. “They respond when planes and cars go in the water. They fight boat fires, and divers continue to fight wharf fires from below the water. They conduct water rescues, assist sinking boats, and perform breakwater rescues. They also do standby helicopter rescues on cliffs in case one goes down into the water,” Tom says.
“Administratively, the team is small,” says Specialist Diver Shawn Mason, Firefighter III. “The dive pool has been diminished to only one back-up diver when they should have six to 12. There’s some sense of urgency to get a dive test underway,” he adds.
Performance benchmarks defining fitness, comfort in the water, and operational competency must be met to become a diver in the program. The International Association of Dive Rescue Specialist (IADRS) Watermanship Test, developed as part of the NFPA 1670 Standard, was adopted as a minimum evaluation. Qualifications include: completing a 1,000-yard open swim; passing five stamina exercises; passing a skills portion consisting of equipment handling and setup; scuba diving skills; and equipment care and storage.
Divers are assigned to stations 111, 112, and 49 and two divers are assigned to each station per shift. At times, the team becomes part of multi-agency efforts including the United States Coast Guard, Port Police, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Harbor Department, other dive teams, and the Long Beach Fire Department.
Fire prevention is a key program function. Everyone on boats two, three and four conduct tank ship inspections at 10 terminals where petroleum products are off-loaded and on-loaded. “A lot of the product is local and gets moved up and down the coast. It comes from refineries and is being moved for distribution. To have the port closed for any amount of time would have a huge financial impact,” Tom says.
Firefighters board and walk the entire tank ship. They create a pre-fire plan so the layout is available for firefighters to maneuver around the ship in case of an emergency. “Firefighters make sure everything is safe so they don’t end up with an explosion, which has happened in the past,” Tom says.
Inspections weren’t conducted prior to the 1976 SS Sansinena incident when a Liberian oil tanker, docked at berth 46, exploded when flammable vapor built up on the ship’s deck. It split in half, lives were lost, and buildings were destroyed prompting the inspection program, says Retired Firefighter Scuba Diver Noel Murchet.
Now openings and hatches are checked so fumes can’t get in the engine room or near a source of a flame. Corrections must be made immediately or operations are stopped. “They don’t want this to happen because time is money,” Noel says.
Harbor safety is dependent on the team, says Noel. “Whether it be passenger liners carrying thousands of people, an act of terrorism, or some other event, you need the LAFD Dive Team to be able to respond.” Noel says other agencies have dive teams, but not at the ready like the LAFD team.
Meet the LAFD Dive Team: Captain Tom Haus
Tom is a high energy, adrenaline-inspired firefighter who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a firefighter. A 27-year veteran of the LAFD, Tom’s had a phenomenal career. Part of Special Operations almost from the start, Tom went to the World Trade Center as part of the Search and Rescue Team during 9/11; he went to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as part of the Swift Water Component; and he’s been to Germany with a Robotics Search and Rescue group. He currently supervises the Dive Search and Rescue group.
A recreational diver for 25 years, Tom says the diver role requires something different. With sport fishing diving and recreational diving there’s nice visibility and warm water. “We don’t normally go out in those conditions. It’s normally zero visibility diving down in nasty water. Your exposure level is high and you can’t be claustrophobic because you’re fumbling around in almost no-visibility situations trying to search for an object,” Tom says.
Shawn Mason: Specialist Diver, Firefighter III
Shawn has been with the LAFD for 28 years, 24 as a diver. A lifelong surfer, he jokes he loves being in a nautical environment and feels more comfortable underwater than in social settings. He appreciates seeing vintage boats in the harbor and learning about maritime history. Before joining the LAFD, Shawn worked in the boatyards scrubbing boat bottoms.
Dredging has produced fine silt at the bottom of the harbor, Shawn says, and visibility can vary from 10 to 15 feet on a good day to barely being able to read a gage in front of our faces. “It’s a hostile environment so a lot of my work is done by Braille. I’ve always just looked forward to finding the body or object as soon as possible so I can get the job done.”
Noel Murchet: LAFD Retired
Noel was with the LAFD for more than 30 years, 19 as a diver. Growing up surfing and scuba diving in the San Pedro area, he’s noticed the marinas have been cleaned up but the harbor’s contamination problems haven’t been completely resolved. “Any time you dove in the harbor it was dangerous because of contaminants in the water,” Noel says.
Confidence in your dive partner and working in tandem is crucial. “On a land company, you can do a certain amount of freelancing at a fire, but if you lose track of your dive partner, it could mean you both must resurface to locate each other and then you lose valuable time,” Noel says.
Keeping the Community Safe
“We’re just there for the families during the recovery. It’s our job to respond to emergencies. It’s our responsibility in that first golden hour, which we’ve stretched out to two hours, to make a successful rescue,” Shawn says.
People appreciate work the team does but some still take public safety for granted. “The team gets a lot of kudos from people who come by and visit and from people on the street. People see us out on the water and I think they appreciate having that security,” Tom says.
-Denise Schlegel, Freelance Writer