Story by Bryanna R. Poulin
ASHDOWN, Ark,.- Is diving dangerous?
Just like any sport there are risks involved but for the daring men on Little Rock District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Dive Team embarking on a Corps dive means depending on one another and being safe to avoid any danger they could encounter.
“Every time we dive we experience the same risks that others experience in performing construction work or maintenance work except that the risks increase exponentially because of the underwater environment that we are working in,” Paul Brown civil engineering technician and diver with Little Rock District said.
The biggest risk for divers is being underwater.
“People drown all the time recreating in the water,” Brown said. “We obviously have that risk every time we get in the water.”
Similar to most offshore air diving work and a large percentage of inshore diving work the district team uses Surface Air Supplied diving gear, which is compressed air delivered to a diving helmet via a hose to the surface. By using SAS it allows the team to fulfill their job under the water and their teammates on the surface monitors them so they stay alive and comfortable.
“Whenever you breathe compressed air you run the risk of pulmonary barotrauma like air embolism or pneumothorax and decompression sickness,” Brown said. “If a lung pops like a balloon or an air bubble gets lodged somewhere in the body you’re not having a good day so we don’t want that to happen to our divers.”
Fellow diver Justin Crowe, a lock and dam operator since 2006 explained how important it is that divers can identify one another just by breath sounds underwater.
“A lot of us could be blindfolded and know who is underwater just by the way a person is breathing,” Crowe said. “A person’s breath sound can convey nervousness, fatigue or if a break is needed.”
Another risk of being underwater is the mechanical phases of the mission.
“The team provides underwater inspection and maintenance of the entire districts infrastructure to include 12 flood control reservoirs, 13 navigation lock and dams, seven hydroelectric power plants and 308 miles of navigation channel,” explained Brown. “When diving around our structures there is also a high risk of head pressure differentials that could ultimately suck a diver into a gate or intake and take his life.”
Adding to this divers must also trust on their keen sense of touch and mechanical knowledge when below the surface.
“When we’re diving everything underwater is completely black and dark,” Crowe described. “There are no lights and we have to feel around with our hands. When we are underwater performing maintenance we have to know and fix everything by touch.”
Fortunately during the most recent operation at Millwood Dam the team only faced the typical challenges.
“Our goal at Millwood Dam was to inspect bulkhead recesses prior to placement of bulkheads,” Brown said. “The bulkheads needed to be placed so the conduits running through the dam could be dewatered for inspection of the sluice gates. The whole operation involved considerable coordination with engineering, safety, contractors and maintenance personnel, as well of closure of the highway. The water needed to be pumped out of the conduits from downstream and hatch covers needed to be removed for access. Crews encountered some difficulties but all in all it went very well considering the limited time allowed because of the highway closure.”
Interestingly enough diving isn’t even their primary job since they all work in different professions for the district.
“This isn’t our regular job but considered a collateral duty,” Brown explained. “We all have different careers throughout the district and volunteer to be on the team.”
The diversity among the group gives them their edge. Brown believes having different jobs enables the team to get a different perspective of the operation. For example, Crowe is a mechanic at a lock and dam so he works on equipment daily and knows how it works. When he is at work he can see what is wrong with the equipment so once he is underwater and it’s dark he can see in his head what is wrong. Being a mechanic strengthens his diving abilities and diving strengthens his mechanic duties.
Despite all the risks and challenges the divers love being part of the team.
“You really get to know the people on your team and the best part is the relationships I have with my fellow divers,” Brown said. “Every time I dive, I put my life in the hands of these guys. We are truly a team; a family. None of us can do what we do without the others on that team doing their part. The work that we do is pretty cool too. When we complete a project the feeling of accomplishment that you feel is very gratifying.”
Brown who has been on the team the longest decided to join in 1998 because of the physical and mental challenges involved saying how it can be very demanding at times. Yet even now he still considers it an honor to be a diver and team member.
“The biggest change has been the faces,” Brown said. “When I first got into the program as a diver in training I was the youngest guy on the team. All of those guys are retired and I’m now the old fellow.”
Crowe on the other hand may be a little younger than Brown but he has loved the water and anything to do with it since high school. Crowe remembered being fresh out of high school and joining the Army where he worked on the Army Deep Sea Dive Vessel gaining the experience he uses now for the district. Once his enlistment was complete he went back home to Dardanelle and tried a factory job only to realize it wasn’t the life for him.
“I got out of the Army and tried factory work but I knew I didn’t like it so I got a job working in the commercial diving industry in New Orleans,” Crowe recalled.
But the long hours and being away from home for months at a time led him to the district.
Crowe went on further to say “I was working for a commercial company diving offshore on oil rigs and after the Hurricane Katrina and Rita doing platform recovery and salvage. I would normally be gone months at a time, so one rotation when I came home, I called the Corps and asked about job opportunities and I was hired in 2006 working and diving since then.”
Still even with the years of experience already on the team, there isn’t enough new divers volunteering for divers who will retire later.
“With our aging structures the need for underwater inspection and maintenance just gets greater,” Brown said. “We also have an aging workforce and we need younger people to do this job and to carry on after we leave. It’s very hard to find individuals willing to do what we do. We need folks to take our place.”
However if someone wants to be on the team, Brown first suggests “Check your motives and don’t get into it for the money or because of ego. We generally work with no visibility and in some very nasty and dirty places. If someone is claustrophobic or scared of the dark being a Corps diver isn’t going to be the best fit.”
Ultimately the one characteristic all divers share is their commitment to the districts mission.
“It really speaks volumes about the character of our divers and their willingness to make sacrifices to work overtime and be away from family,” concluded Brown. “I think we all really love what we do as divers with the Corps.”