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14 June 2010, 13:51
The Specialist Search Unit (SSU) of Sussex Police has been completing diver training at Shoreham Harbour to practise underwater searches.
Picture: left to right PC Jon Lelliott, PC Darran Middleton and PC Michelle Pearce
The multi-skilled team often has to dive to recover drugs, weapons and evidence in dark, polluted water, where visibility is poor and any number of hazards are present.
PC Jonathan Lelliott, training organiser for SSU, said: "Weeds, refuse and pollution all make visibility in the water extremely poor. Objects can quickly become submerged on the seabed, so the water becomes even murkier as the diver disturbs the silt. Even with a torch, it's like shining a light through fog. Officers are unable to see the dangers in front of them. Shopping trolleys, traffic cones, broken glass - all sorts of things are found in the water that could potentially snare the air supply tube from the surface."
The divers use a rope called a jackstay to guide them gradually across the seabed to complete a meticulous fingertip search of the area. Everything is recognised through touch.
PC Paul Critchfield said: "I need to be able to feel the subtle differences between objects so I can tell what's in my hand by touch alone. Unless I'm searching for a large object like a body, I use the thinnest gloves possible so I know I haven't missed anything."
Officers rely on each other to keep them safe in the water. A two-way radio is used to communicate between officers diving and those supervising. If a diver gets in trouble or the radio fails, they pull on their 'lifeline' - a rope held by one of the officers on the surface.
PC Lelliott said: "If we get to practise in a controlled environment like the harbour it means we will be able to respond quickly in a real incident and find vital evidence that could convict an offender. We're always looking for different locations and scenarios to put our skills to the test."
As well as searches of rivers, lakes and the sea, SSU officers carry out counter-terrorism security searches, rope access work, marine patrols, as well as searching in confined spaces where there may be a risk from dangerous gases or lack of oxygen, so full breathing apparatus is used.
Recently training by the team has included the confined spaces at water treatment works and the tunnels at reservoirs.
The SSU Unit is based at Shoreham Airport with the Air Operations Unit and is available to serve Sussex and surrounding counties 24- hours a day and 365 days a year.