Reassurance on the back of a truck
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For the first time in its history, the Police National Dive Squad has its own portable decompression chamber, which has been described as a “game-changer” for the safety of the unit.
The state-of-the-art chamber, built in Tauranga, fits inside a six-metre shipping container on the back of a 10-wheeler truck, currently parked at the squad’s headquarters in Seaview, Lower Hutt, primed to travel at a moment’s notice to isolated dive spots.
“It's a game-changer,” says squad OC Senior Sergeant Bruce Adams, who compares the chamber to an ambulance at an AOS cordon – there in case something goes wrong.
The risks are always there, he says, particularly when about 30 per cent of the jobs divers attend can be close to the safety limit of 40 metres below the surface.
Decompression sickness, or the bends, is a disorder that can affect divers when returning to the surface. It is caused by nitrogen bubbles that form in the blood and muscle tissue as pressure decreases. It can cause fatigue, muscle and joint pain, dizziness and vertigo and, more seriously, a stroke or death.
Before the chamber’s arrival this year, divers who required surface decompression had to travel to Auckland or Christchurch, which was difficult. Either a special plane capable of manipulating its cabin pressure, or a long journey through Taranaki to avoid the high altitudes of the Central Plateau, was required. Divers suffering from decompression sickness need to stay below 600m above sea level to avoid serious injury.
“Getting a diver to medical aid and then to one of those treatment facilities can take quite a bit of time. And, obviously, the risk to the diver, and the organisation, is that we seriously hurt the diver – anything from paralysis to death.”
To ensure each member of the dive squad can operate the chamber safely, they recently completed a week-long training course with the Navy in Auckland.
“It's a bit like the diving,” says Bruce. “It's not just a case of knowing how to operate that piece of equipment, it's everything else that goes with it. Because we’re carrying 1000 litres of compressed air, plus oxygen, it comes into the category of dangerous goods, so we've got to comply with those regulations as well.”
All squad members will need to get a Class 4 driver’s licence to drive the 20-tonne truck.
Bruce says that having the chamber won’t mean the squad will be doing any longer or deeper dives, but it will give them greater peace of mind.
“Knowing it’s there is a great reassurance for the team and our families.
“Diving has significant risk, so it’s about making sure we get our staff home safe at the end of the day.
“We hope that in 50 years’ time, the equipment looks as good as it does now and that it’s only used in training.”