By Rick BenoitJanuary 17, 2019
During 2018, members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Forward Response Technical Dive Team could be found diving in Japan, the Marshall Islands, Puerto Rico and throughout the United States - traveling not for pleasure, but to work as Army civilians bringing specialized individual and collective engineering expertise to underwater missions the world over.
Most recently, team members closed an exceptionally hectic 2018 schedule with December dive missions inspecting piers and wharfs in the frigid Potomac River at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and in icy New York Harbor across from New Jersey's Sandy Hook peninsula at Naval Weapons Station Earle.
"Needless to say, we've been a very busy team these past 12 to 24 months," said co-team lead Steve England, P.E., and one of the team's certified professional engineer divers. "However, truth be told, this is exactly the way we all like it. We're busy, but we are safely and efficiently executing critical underwater inspection missions as well as managing dive operations to evaluate the structural integrity of essential waterfront facilities and coastal infrastructure."
England, who works out of Philadelphia District as a hydraulic engineer specializing is scour analysis, explained missions can last from one day to one month. Additionally, England explained, there's time needed for preparation which includes pulling a qualified team together, researching and writing a working dive plan, checking equipment and making travel arraignments and then travel.
Once the underwater work is completed, out briefs have to be produced and lengthy technical reports must be written.
"Making missions especially challenging is that our diving is only a collateral duty, not a full time job, second in priority to our primary responsibilities," said England, a USACE diver and dive supervisor for nearly 20 years. "I'm not complaining; we dive because of its importance to the USACE mission and because we love diving."
As a barometer to its year ahead, the team, which logged over 100,000 miles in 2018, began with a pair of time-critical post-hurricane inspections; one at the Texas City/Galveston Bay Moses Lake levee flood gate in January, and at Guajataca Dam, Puerto Rico in February.
At Guajataca, team members from Buffalo District completed underwater inspections of the dam located in western Puerto Rico using both a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and divers. This mission required collection of detailed structural conditions and measurements at about 75 feet underwater to support Jacksonville District and FEMA assignments to repair the aged structure damaged by Hurricane Maria.
"An extraordinary amount of planning and coordination was dedicated to this critical dive and ROV operation; there were so many unknowns going into the mission," said Guajataca Dam dive team lead Shanon Chader who also served as mission safety officer, dive supervisor and diver. "However, our team worked closely with Jacksonville District to ensure we had a good understanding of the job at hand which allowed us to safely and efficiently complete our task."
Chief of the Buffalo District's Coastal and Geotech team, Chader, P.E., explained that divers during the week-long mission inspected and measured underwater gates as well as trash rack approaches, channels and wing walls; all information vital to effectuating repairs.
Additionally, the team executed 2018 missions at Aberdeen Proving Ground and Curtis Bay, Md.; Ft. Meyers, Fla., Washington; Ft. Belvoir, Va.; Morehead City, N.C.; Seattle, Wash., and Hawaii, as well as in Japan and the Marshall Islands.
By comparison, in 2017, the team performed dive operations at USACE dams, locks and channels throughout the United States including Alaska, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Oregon and New York; Pier 8 Busan, South Korea and Camp Darby, Livorno, Italy as well as provided on-site dive planning and safety oversight at Mosul Dam in Iraq.
"We very much have a can-do attitude when it comes to accepting mission and accomplishing tasks at hand," said dive supervisor and diver John Bull, U.S. Army Research & Development Center (ERDC). "We have an outstanding group of highly skilled engineers and divers who work very well together. We look out for each other and keep everyone safe. If we can't do that - be safe and look out for each other - we just won't accept the job."
Bull, who also serves as a team mission manager and liaison, illustrated the team's "can-do" attitude mobilizing and demobilizing four USACE divers last July traveling 26,000-mile in 36 hours over six days for a two-week mission to the Marshall Islands. An island country halfway between Hawaii and Australia in the Pacific Ocean, the team executed its mission performing underwater inspections, bottom surveys and reconnaissance supporting a $52-million pier rehabilitation project at the U.S. Army Garrison on Kwajalein Atoll.
"It's the diversity of our dive team that creates a synergy which is the hallmark and catalyst of our program," said team safety officer Darryl Bishop, a dive supervisor during the Kwajalein mission.
Diving to depths of 110 feet, sometimes in near freezing water so turbid divers cannot see the sharks, snakes and alligators they share their work site with, the team utilizes a variety of job-specific underwater methodologies. One system often used by the team is surface-supplied air or SSA for short. This equipment includes a diver-worn helmet attached to a hose delivering unlimited amounts of air to breath. Using this system, which includes various types of suits providing warmth, divers can talk to teammates on the surface as well as send live-time video pictures of their work area.
Using SSA also allows the team flexibility to perform a variety of underwater work, including visual and non-destructive testing (NDT), video and still photography, installation, maintenance and repair work, ship husbandry, salvage, invasive species surveys, mitigation, as well as shark, snake and alligator avoidance.
"Our team has an exceptional ability to mobilize with a wide variety of gear which meets our most unique and demanding mission needs anywhere in the world," explained equipment manager Weston Cross, Buffalo District. "As an example, during one three-week period in 2018, we inspected nearly 15,000 linear feet of seawall and piers at three sites in Okinawa [Japan]. That work required multiple mobilizations of dive, safety and inspection equipment, which allowed divers to complete difficult underwater visual, tactile, and NDT surveys providing information leading to critical repairs."
Initiated in 2012, the Forward Response Technical Dive Team comprises of about 20 engineers of various disciplines, biologists, geologists, program and project managers, biologists, as well as technicians from throughout USACE. Members are stationed throughout the United States including Buffalo, New England, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., and St Paul Districts as well as ERDC, Vicksburg, Miss., and North Atlantic Division, Ft. Hamilton, NY. Since inception, this elite team has safely executed and assisted with more than 100 missions worldwide and throughout the U.S. performing certified structural inspections on bridges, piers, wharfs, docks and seawalls for USACE, ERDC as well as for big Army's Infrastructure Management Command (IMCOM).
"I believe one of the greatest values of our team is that we bring to missions a highly experienced, well-rounded, multi-faceted team," said Adam Hamm, a P.E. and Buffalo District's Operations and Maintenance Chief for New York and Pennsylvania. Hamm, who serves as a dive supervisor and diver during a 10-day June mission to Kure, Akizuki and Hiro Ammunition Deports in Japan's Hiroshima Prefecture. "We not only have the capability to physically perform the underwater inspections but we also have years of engineering experience and technical background to come up with valuable repair alternatives and cost estimates for our clients."