Written by Chief Petty Officer Thomas McKenzie
Roughly 70 percent of the world is water. Eighty percent of the world’s population lives on or near a coast, and 90 percent of international commerce moves by sea.
Capable maritime forces help ensure stability and prosperity around the world, and this year’s Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise helped participating nations improve those capabilities.
This year’s biennial exercise held in Honolulu, Hawaii, involved 26 nations, 45 ships, five submarines, more than 200 aircraft, an estimated 25,000 personnel and took more than a year to plan. RIMPAC focuses on maritime force capabilities and providing realistic, relevant training that increases a participant nation’s abilities to plan, communicate and conduct complex maritime operations.
Those participating forces exercised a wide range of capabilities, ranging from complex war-fighting to maritime security operations and sea control to humanitarian aid and disaster relief. The realistic training syllabus included amphibious operations, gunnery, missile, anti-submarine, and air defense exercises as well as counter-piracy, mine clearance operations, explosive ordnance disposal, and diving and salvage operations.
For the humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HA/DR) scenario, U.S. Navy Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One, based in Honolulu, Hawaii, requested assistance from U.S. Coast Guard divers who responded with a mixed force from the three Regional Dive Lockers based in Portsmouth, Virginia; San Diego, California; and Honolulu, Hawaii, to assist in underwater debris removal and waterway cleanup following a massive earthquake and resulting tsunami.
While investigating a “grounded tug”, Coast Guard divers simulated the discovery of a breached hull that began leaking an unknown petroleum product. Since Coast Guard dive lockers have a limited amount of decontamination equipment for this type of situation, they contacted the National Strike Force (NSF) to assist. A 12-person team consisting of members from the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf Strike Teams and the National Strike Force Center of Experience deployed, each bringing with them a different level of experience and expertise to help develop and adjust the decontamination process for each type of dive.
“The specific role of U.S. Coast Guard divers during the HA/DR exercise was to respond to disaster relief, which required the execution of contaminated water diving operations,” said Chief Petty Officer Paul Church, Coast Guard Area Pacific Dive Force Management.
During RIMPAC, Coast Guard divers joined with the NSF to develop their responses for marine environmental protection, one of the Coast Guard’s primary missions, as well as developing the capability for divers to operate in water quality up to and including heavily contaminated. This mission aligns with the Coast Guard dive capability response matrix tier one — environmental protection, natural disasters and oil spills. Church said a second tier capability of expeditionary deployment was also met.
“We greatly improved the way we respond to such events, recognizing that topside environmental conditions can be equally or more challenging than those in the water,” said Church.
As such, Coast Guard divers are developing the procedural guidance for how they respond.
“We noted some differences between descriptions of contaminated water from Navy manuals that our divers follow and those defined in Strike Team procedures and regulations,” Church said.
Additional conversations during the debriefing following the exercise covered medical checks, the sanitation of dive equipment after a response and implementing everyday decontamination for routine dives.
“We were able to share what we do and how we do it, increasing the knowledge between regional dive lockers and the three national strike teams, beginning the basis for future tactics, techniques and procedures,” Church said.
“Diver decontamination is a balance between traditional dive safety protocols and procedures and public health and safety, especially with an injured diver,” said Lt. Cmdr. Allison Cox, executive officer of the Pacific Strike Team, who served as the response officer directly overseeing the operation and acting as a liaison between the decontamination team and multinational divers. “A quick but thorough decontamination prior to transporting a diver to a re-compression chamber or hospital will ensure the welfare of the diver as well as the safe and continued operation of that chamber or hospital without spreading the contaminant to other people, or the environment.”
Cox said the exercise helped develop standard procedures for diver decontamination based on the type of rig or gear the divers use, the geographical location and the type of suit required, whether the divers are wearing hazmat dry suits or wetsuits, and the type of contamination.
Each country and dive agency brought a unique perspective and ideas to develop a baseline process for oil contamination, sewage and chemical exposure, as well as non-ambulatory scenarios.
“The Strike Team recommended that the dive teams spray a hose into the water before a diver emerges from a dive to clear surface debris, but the Royal Australian Navy divers took this one step further,” Cox said. “They teach their teams to spray the water before a diver makes entry, which is one simple way to make the dive safer.”
The decontamination team structure was adapted from a typical six member team to a 12 member team to support the mandatory work and rest periods, based on the heat stress thresholds of responders who would be working chemical protective suits and respirators. The team remained flexible throughout the operation, supporting additional requests from foreign nation dive teams and balancing their existing workload, while keeping an eye out for signs of heat stress given the hot Hawaiian temperatures.
“About a year ago I had an opportunity to work with Coast Guard Marine Safety and Security Team San Diego for the Coastal Trident Exercise,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Judah Fields with the Pacific Strike Team, based in Novato, California, who acted as the response supervisor. “I was able to use a lot of those Trident lessons learned during this exercise. For RIMPAC, I liked that we were able to get all the teams together and practice for real contingencies, because the more we practice, the better we’re prepared.”
One common conversational element between the Coast Guard divers and the decontamination team that surfaced again and again was: Is this dive for decontamination, or decontamination for dive? Which process was the primary? How do they fit together? And how do you develop standard protocols that can be quickly adapted to best ensure the safety of the divers, responders and the community?
“We all have our standard operating procedures (SOP), and we live by them, but they do contain options for waivers and these drills test that flexibility,” said Fields. “Just as our standard operating procedures are strict for what we do, the dive SOP is just as strict. So, it’s important to have people who can come together and understand teamwork, and put aside competition. Because of this, we were able to find ways to make each operating procedure work.”
The exercise provided Coast Guard divers the opportunity to work with commercial divers – something not often done.
“We train on the idea, but we don’t get to work directly with them,” Fields said. “As we got into the exercise with our divers and found what common procedures we would both follow, it was interesting to see how many nation divers also follow those procedures.”
“There were a lot of lessons learned from both sides,” said Cox, “as well as from the participating nation divers who may now take contaminated conditions more seriously.