personnel needs. Typically, 6–8 candidates will
be put into training once every 3–5 years.
The curriculum is an exhaustive full-time
program that lasts approximately five months.
It’s designed to prepare students to function in
a high hazard, subsurface environment through
stress inoculation and comprehensive training.
Thirty to forty percent of the candidates who
begin the program are unable to complete it
due to the mental and physical challenges of
the course. Candidates are evaluated in the
pool, in open water and in the classroom multiple times per week. Failure at any point will
lead to dismissal from the program.
The curriculum begins with technician
level training in swift water rescue from the
Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission.
Certifications the candidates earn include
water rescue and emergency response,
advanced line systems, emergency boat operations and ice rescue.
The students who successfully complete the
surface water rescue portion of the program
then move onto scuba diving. They’re introduced to the under water environment with the
Professional Association of Diving Instructors
(PADI) open water and advanced open water
courses. This allows the student to become
familiar with the subsurface environment and
start to learn the basic scuba skills that are the
foundation for all advanced training.
Once those courses have been completed
successfully, students must take and pass the
International Association of Dive Rescue Specialists (IADRS) watermanship test to continue
training. The test includes a 500-yard swim,
a 15-minute tread with hands held out of the
water for the last two minutes, an 800-yard
snorkel swim, a 100-yard inert rescue tow and
retrieval of an object from depth.
Each event is scored individually on a scale
of one to five based on time and performance.
Maximum time between events is 15 minutes.
All candidates must have a cumulative score
of at least 12 points to pass, and all divers on
the team must successfully complete this test
annually to remain active.
After that, students begin to learn the skills
that they’ll need to become public safety divers. This portion of the training uses the Dive
Rescue International (DRI) curriculum and
includes certification in public safety diving,
dive rescue specialist 1 and 2, public safety
diver survival, dry suit diving, med diver,
boat-based diving, as well as light salvage
By the time the training is completed, the
candidates will have completed at least 50
open water dives in all three of Pittsburgh’s
rivers as well as surrounding quarries. Divers
are assigned to the unit on a monthly rotating basis. Most spend four months of the year
working river rescue and the rest of the time is
spent at their regular duty station on an ambulance or rescue truck.
Drowning is a public health problem in the
United States. According to the Centers for
Disease Control, 10 people die every day from
unintentional drowning and at least two of
those victims are children. 4 The best practice for mitigating these deaths is prevention
through safe boating education, the use of
personal flotation devices, mental health treatment and infrastructure around water ways that
prohibits unintentional entry.
When prevention fails, the EMS divers of
Pittsburgh River Rescue are ready to descend
into the dark waters, find the victim, bring
them to the surface and immediately initiate
lifesaving care. JEMS
Simon Taxel, NRP, BA, is a crew chief and public safety diver
for the Pittsburgh Bureau of EMS, a rescue specialist on the
Pennsylvania USAR Strike Team and a contributing author for CE
Solutions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Mckay G. (July 19, 2009.) Pittsburgh nautical destination and home port for adventurous boaters. Pittsburgh
Post Gazette. Retrieved April 12, 2017, from www.post-
2. Specialty units. (n.d.) City of Pittsburgh. Retrieved April 21,
2017, from www.pittsburghpa.gov/police/specialty_units.htm.
3. Orusa S: Dive rescue specialist operational training for public safety divers, 4th edition. Dive Rescue International: Fort
Collins, Colo., 3–9, 2007.
4. Unintentional drowning: Get the facts. (n.d.) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 29, 2017, from
Pittsburgh River Rescue in Action
On a warm summer afternoon, the Pittsburgh River Rescue duty crew is finishing up routine testing and maintenance
on the boat’s onboard fire pump when
dispatch alerts the divers about a missing
swimmer on the Monongahela river. The
boat is quickly launched and responds to
When the crew arrives on scene, a frantic bystander yells that a man disappeared
while swimming close to shore. The boat
is secured, the divers prepare to splash, and
land-based units interview the witnesses
on shore to determine where the victim
The point where a victim goes subsurface, called the “last seen point,” is the most
critical piece of information for any dive
operation. When a person or object sinks,
it will almost always come to rest on the
bottom of the river within a radius that’s
equal to the depth of the water (when the
current is 1 mph or less).
If an accurate last seen point is identified,
the divers will be able to quickly recover
the victim even in low visibility conditions.
The first diver enters the water and
swims a sweep search pattern starting at
the boat and working out into the channel
to the point that the witnesses last saw the
victim. The water conditions are excellent,
with minimal current around 0.2 mph, and
better than average visibility. After 45 minutes, the first diver completes his search and
exits the water.
There are three additional divers on duty
in the field and they deploy the second boat
and respond to the scene.
Another diver deploys and searches a
second area downstream from the last seen
point. The second diver completes his dive
without finding the victim. A third diver
is deployed in an area even further downstream and recovers the victim within the
first 10 minutes of his dive.
When the victim is found, he’s been in
the water for close to two hours, so resuscitation isn’t attempted. The body is found
approximately 50 yards downstream from
the area where the witnesses indicated that
he had been seen last.