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NOPD Search and Rescue Unit Dives into Marine Recovery, Investigation Role

by Aaron E. Looney

September 30, 2016

Categories: On the Beat

When the driver of an 18-wheeler lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a canal on I-10 earlier this month, it was the NOPD Search and Rescue Unit that helped in extracting the vehicle.

“The cab was almost completely submerged in a muddy canal filled with vegetation, which made the work more difficult,” said Sergeant Brian Elsensohn.

Clad in wetsuits and oxygen tanks, specially-trained officers from multiple agencies jumped into the water in attempt to save the driver and get control of the big rig.

"NOFD and EMS divers had to first go in and extract the driver, who unfortunately died. We also assisted to carefully secure the vehicle so that the tow trucks could remove it from the canal, which took some time,” he said.

It’s the kind of call that the team hopes to never get, but they always train for.

Elsensohn said that one of the most dangerous aspects of the work is investigating in what is called a black water diving situation, when the diver cannot see very far in front of themselves under water.

“If your visibility is 6 inches, anything after that you can’t see,” he said. “There are lines that we use for communications back to the surface. We have a communication system based on a sequence of pulls to let them know what’s going on under the water. We also used different search patterns, depending on the body of water, visibility and what it is we’re looking for down there.”

Officers in the Search & Rescue Unit – while also serving in other SOD units such as SWAT, Violent Offender Warrant Squad, Bomb Disposal, Armory, K9, Traffic, DWI and Extradition – are adept in underwater rescue and recovery methods, having undergone numerous hours of specialized training in techniques to maximize recovery efforts.

“Most of us are certified as Advanced Rescue divers, training constantly to keep our skills up,” Elsensohn said. “We’re working to get more divers to join the team.”

When we dive train, we do fitness training in the water,” Elsensohn said. “We black out our masks with plastic to go through a search pattern to locate things underwater when you can’t see. Map out areas in your mind on feel.”

The Search and Rescue/Marine Unit is part of the department’s Special Operations Division. It maintains NOPD’s fleet of 35 boats for search, rescue and recovery of individuals lost in any body of water located in Orleans Parish. The unit also works in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard in maritime law enforcement environments.

“We are called out on anything that involves searching a body of water – drownings or boating accidents, plane crashes, vehicles that go in the water or missing people that may have passed by body of waters at some point,” said Elsensohn. “Also, if a crime scene is under water, such as looking for a weapon used in a murder or aggravated battery, we respond to that situation as well.”

The unit also provided use of some of its boats to recovery crews in the Baton Rouge area during the recent severe flooding.