Contaminated Water Diving Exercise

CONDIVEX provides helpful program for diving in contaminated waters


bu2 zachary schulte

Say the words “contaminated water,” and images of major worldwide disasters like the emergency response after Hurricane Katrina or the sinking of the Exxon Valdez come to mind. Although diving in these heavily contaminated areas is not necessarily an everyday occurrence, some degree of contamination and/or pollution is evident is practically every body of water in the world.

mdv james mcvicar

According to the United States Navy Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) “Guidance for Diving in Contaminated Waters” – the standard utilized by government and commercial agencies alike – contaminated water is defined as “water that contains any chemical, biological or radioactive substance that poses a chronic or acute health risk to exposed personnel.” Not all contamination is readily apparent, so it is extremely important for both military and commercial divers to educate themselves on the potential dangers to better protect themselves as well as their fellow divers.

Ongoing training and preparation is key to maintaining awareness of the potential risks of contaminated water and ensuring readiness in case of emergency. For that reason, the Naval Facilities Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center (NAVFAC EXWC) Dive Locker hosted the newly established Contaminated Water Diving Exercise (CONDIVEX) in June 2019. The goal of CONDIVEX was multifaceted – to educate on the latest techniques and guidance, provide hands-on, practical diving scenarios for the attendees, and facilitate discussion around current critical capability gaps related to contaminated water in an effort to drive continuous improvement of standard operating procedures.

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The Four Pillars of Contaminated Diving

As stated, the NAVSEA “Guidance for Diving in Contaminated Waters” has become the authority for information on contaminated diving. The guide can be used to break contaminated water diving into four main pillars; detection, protection, decontamination and post-dive medical surveillance.

Detection – Identifying the concentration and types of contaminates that may be present in the water or sediment of the dive location. These could include biological, chemical and/or radiological hazards.

Protection – Determining what type of diving dress is required for the level of contamination expected. Contaminant levels can range from Category 4 contaminated water, which requires only standard diving dress, to Category 1 contaminated water, which requires the diver to be fully encapsulated in a dry suit and diving helmet with surface exhaust.

Decontamination – The aim of decontamination is to physically or chemically neutralize suspected contaminates from the divers. The procedure will be unique to each diving operation and will be tailored to the hazard, responders on scene, location and equipment available to the dive team.

Post-dive medical surveillance – Depending on the type of toxic substance encountered, it may be advisable to introduce short- or long-term biological and medical surveillance of exposed personnel.

Despite all the knowledge provided by the NAVSEA “Guidance for Diving in Contaminated Waters,” there are still many unknowns concerning diving in contaminated water, especially as it relates to contaminant detection and the post-dive medical actions required for various substances and exposure levels. That is where the collaborative efforts and combined expertise exhibited at CONDIVEX 2019 come into play.

a diver being decontaminated

CONDIVEX: The Multi-agency Contaminated Water Diving Working Group

When the Naval Facilities (NAVFAC) Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center (EXWC) Dive Locker hosted the latest CONDIVEX in June 2019 in Port Hueneme, CA, the mission at hand was to apply learnings through interactive, handson exercises, and drive a dialogue around how to further improve and develop contaminated water diving standards. This newly established multi-agency exercise called on the expertise and participation of representatives from 26 diverse agencies across Department of Defense, private industry, and academia – including the US Navy, NAVSEA representatives, US Coast Guard, US Army, LA County and Ventura County Sheriff’s offices, and the Association of Diving Contractors International.

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The objectives for CONDIVEX 2019 included:

  • Hosting the Navy’s most in depth and comprehensive contaminated water dive training to date.
  • Provide a forum to discuss solutions for contaminate detection, protection and decontamination capability gaps.
  • Review post-dive medical surveillance protocols to increase understanding and awareness to ensure the safety of future divers.
  • Review and update protection and decontamination equipment list.
  • Provide demonstrations of the latest technology in contaminant detection.
  • Provide lessons-learned and feedback to be incorporated in the next revision of NAVSEA’s “Guidance for Diving in Contaminated Waters.”

Phase one of the Exercise began with classroom training that focused on the latest NAVSEA Contaminated Water Diving Familiarization Training. This included a review and discussion of the four pillars and an open dialogue to examine known capability gaps in executing the pillars. Through this forum, the group was able to collectively discuss best practices from individual agencies, and share knowledge and experiences. This also allowed medical professionals and scientists in attendance to discuss the concerns of the “working diver,” which solicited valuable feedback for them to incorporate into their future research.

Phase two of the Exercise included technical demonstrations of developing technology in the field of contaminate detection. The Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense (JPEO-CBRND) was kind enough to allow two of the companies currently competing to develop the next Multi Phase Chemical Agent Detection (MPCAD) system to present their technology at CONDIVEX 2019. FLIR Systems and Signature Science both demonstrated their detection devices that utilize mass spectrometry to determine what contaminants are present in solid, liquid or vapor samples. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory also presented a biological detection device they are currently adapting for use by the US Coast Guard. All of these technologies exhibited strong potential, and with further research could greatly improve contaminant detection capability for future divers.

The third and final phase entailed the execution of hands-on, practical Surface Supply Diving (SSD) and SCUBA diving scenarios and decontamination procedures. To prepare for the Exercise, the Navy’s diving decontamination kit was procured from NAVSEA’s Emergency Ship Salvage Material (ESSM) facility. The kit, which was specifically developed for use by Navy Divers, is a turnkey decontamination solution that includes gross decontamination stations, inflatable decontamination showers, contaminant catch basins and more.

The first of the six hands-on scenarios executed simulated a straight stick Category 2 surface supplied dive that utilized the entire ESSM decontamination station, and required dive side and decontamination personnel to be wearing the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for the simulated contaminate. This gave the attendees the chance to be a part of the dive side and witness first-hand the amount of work and manpower required for a full decontamination station.

From here the team experimented with modifying the decontamination station to try and minimize the footprint required, as well as rehearsed various diving scenarios that included diving casualty decontamination, dry suit cutouts and body recoveries.

Throughout the Exercise, insights were gleaned and key takeaways included:

  • Timely and accurate contaminant detection is an area of opportunity across all participating agencies due to current technological limitations, and investment and resources will be required to improve current detection capabilities.
  • A full decontamination session would not be necessary for most contaminated water dives.
  • Obtaining the proper PPE for topside personnel should be major consideration during pre-dive planning.
  • Creating a database of known contaminates in different locations would be an extremely useful tool for pre-dive planning.
  • Umbilical management during decontamination should be rehearsed prior to diving.
  • Further research needs to be conducted to further the medical community’s knowledge on the chronic and acute effects of various contaminates on divers.

Contaminated water is an unfortunate reality of today’s world, and must be a consideration for military and commercial divers alike. However, multi-agency collaborative efforts such as CONDIVEX will undoubtedly promote continued improvement and provide benefit to the global dive community now and into the future.