Founded in 1960, the Maryland State Police Underwater Recovery Team (MSP URT) celebrated their50th anniversary in 2010. Originally, the team was established with 10 members from throughout the State of Maryland; however, throughout the team’s history its members have fluctuated between seven and 10 troopers.
Underwater Recovery Team members are sworn members of the State Police and must hold the rank of at least trooper. During their tenure, they must complete their road patrol probationary period and maintain an impeccable service record. Team members have at least an Advanced Open Water Certification (NAUI, PADI, SSI or a military equivalent). Team members are highly skilled, professional individuals who, aside from the daily duties of a trooper, are called upon as divers to perform the delicate and sometimes emotionally grueling task of search and recovery.
The team has historically fallen under the command of the Special Operations Division. As a separate entity from any other unit of the State Police, the URT has evolved and gained notoriety by performing a variety of water related missions. The URT is managed by a team and assistant team commander whose responsibility is to make final decisions regarding the participation of the team in a particular mission. Each diver has the responsibility to maintain a high level of situational awareness. Divers on the team pride themselves in providing a safe, dependable and efficient unit whose efforts support the local communities and police agencies throughout Maryland.
As one of the smaller specialized units within the Maryland State Police and in Maryland, the team performs missions with such agencies as the Maryland Natural Resources Police, Delaware State Police, FBI, Secret Service, U.S. Customs, U.S. Coast Guard, as well as local law enforcement and fire departments. Any agency may request the services of the URT for law enforcement related matters such as evidence collection, security perimeter scans, explosive identification and body recovery. Similar to other Emergency Management Agencies, the Maryland State Police URT conducts investigations and ensures the waterways throughout Maryland and the boundaries of the United States of America are protected.
URT members are available 24 hours a day. Personnel are ready for deployment to any part of the state, as well as anywhere within the United States if needed. Because of the highly aquatic geography of Maryland, divers frequently find themselves performing missions in lakes, rivers, ponds, and quarries, as well as the immediate coastline of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay. Divers are trained to perform missions in these waters at all times of the year. In the winter months, this means diving in frigid waters sometimes covered in ice. At other times of the year, water conditions such as swift currents and “black water” also pose particular challenges to divers.
The URT is multifaceted. Each year the team strives to push the envelope and provide a supportive effort to those in need. With that push, in 2009, the team gained more experience through increased training in hull search techniques, such as learning skills needed to locate explosives, illegal aliens and controlled dangerous substances in and about hulls of ships entering Maryland’s waterways. Being able to search vital infrastructures within the state, such as dams and bridge pilings, will help ensure the safety of those living in and traveling throughout Maryland.
Over the course of its 50 year history, the Maryland State Police Underwater Recovery Unit members have trained to maintain their proficiency in diving techniques. The URT is trained to assist in the rescue or recovery of individuals who have been involved in water related mishaps. This may include deploying from three MSP boats assigned to the unit, from the Maryland Natural Resources Police waterborne assets and U.S. Coast Guard vessels to render services or perform other in-water rescue or recovery missions.
In the unfortunate event that a victim is believed to have been submerged underwater over an extended period of time, the URT is specially trained to recover the body, even in cases where the victim has died from accidental drowning, suicide, homicide, boating accidents or even aircraft tragedies. Submerged body recoveries are an unpleasant part of the rescue mission, yet are a constant reminder to divers of the power of water and the respect it commands.
The URT is frequently responsible for locating and assisting in the removal of vehicles submerged in water. In many of these cases, the vehicles are stolen and have been placed in a waterway as a means of disposal. In other cases, the vehicles have been involved in a motor vehicle accident and are subsequently submerged in water. Regardless of the facts in the case, the main objective of the URT is to determine if there is anyone in the vehicle and to make a rescue if possible. Once it is determined that the vehicle is clear of occupants, divers are responsible for rigging the vehicle to assist the tow company with removal.
One of the most notable duties of the team is to locate and recover evidence used in a crime or evidence otherwise related to a case. This evidence may include, but is not limited to, knives, guns, ammunition, jewelry, tools, human remains and clothing. The team provides resources to preserve evidence which has been recovered from water. Evidence recovery is very time consuming and it employs a methodical search process. This is important because where the team predominately dives is covered with silt and debris.
Search patterns are done using a variety of search techniques. A search technique commonly utilized is the “jack stay.” Other processes include the use of a “necklace” or an “arc.” Regardless of the process, each one has its pros and cons, but nonetheless, they are the most productive ways to do black water search and recovery. The team often has to make quick calculated decisions which can affect lives and or the outcome of an entire case.
In 2009, MSP URT divers were trained in performing missions to clear an underwater area of explosives or any other type of life threatening device. Although divers are not trained in explosive ordinance removal, they are able to identify such devices and mark the area for removal by military EOD personnel. In the same year, URT divers were provided the training to assist from time to time with detailed searches of the hull of a marine vessel. Hull searches are conducted in a joint effort by jurisdictions responsible for the channel and waterways leading up to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Not only are ships/vessels searched for explosives, but also contraband which might be smuggled into the United States via Maryland waterways.
In addition to their daily training and missions, team members provide a resource for a variety of civic groups and events which support their efforts. Twice a year the team assembles and works with Special Olympics Maryland in their “Polar Bear Plunge” fundraising events. Held in two different parts of the state (Annapolis and Deep Creek) to raise millions of dollars for Special Olympics Maryland participants, divers brave frigid waters while hundreds of thousands of fundraising patrons plunge.
For two consecutive years, the team also has been involved in providing a stable diving platform for the Ocean City Air Show. The show is held along the Ocean City coastline. The team earned the title of lead dive unit for waterborne rescue in the event of a performing aircraft mishap. The team was provided training regarding the recovery of downed military and civil aircraft. With the arrival of the Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, the Maryland State Police URT was noted as being an integral part of the air show.
Since the inception of the URT, divers have been sought to enter water often as black as the night. For even the most veteran of diver, there are moments of fear. Suddenly the unimaginable can happen. The water becomes colder. The light turns even blacker. Is up really up, or is it down? Where are your other divers? Are they in trouble? Instantly something happens. When any rescue diver talks about black water diving, they are talking about zero visibility. That is, not a little, zero, none. When has someone been heard talking about taking a vacation to enjoy an hour or two of “black water diving”? Black water is just that: as black as can be. Black water diving isn't for vacations and Sea World.
Law enforcement units which specialize in the aforementioned skills generally are used in places most people have no desire to experience. They are used in places many people wouldn’t even venture to explore. They are placed in a position of not only self preservation, but preservation of each team member who enters the water, and often to save others. For over 50 years, members of the Maryland State Police Underwater Recovery Unit have been doing just that: self preservation and supporting the members of the community for whom they swore an oath to serve and protect.
The Maryland State Police Underwater Recovery Team
"HELD TO LEAD BY SERVICE WITH HONOR"