The Bergen County Police Department Water Search and Recovery Unit (WSAR) was created in 1957 when the Police Chief identified a critical need for law enforcement officers to operate in underwater environments. The purpose of this unit was to recover proceeds and evidence of criminal activity. Bergen County’s vast lakes and streams, as well as the three major rivers (Hackensack, Hudson, and Passaic) flowing through it, provide a tempting medium for criminals to dispose of their weapons and criminal evidence. The unit was also designed to conduct operations to recover human victims of accidental drowning.
The original unit included volunteer officers from the Bergen County Police Department. The officers, after passing a rigorous swimming test, received instruction in the use of self contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA). The officer’s equipment consisted of wet suits, steel air tanks and double hose regulators. The unit first worked out of a station wagon, then graduating in time to a van, then to a panel truck, and then a donated commuter van. The current main vehicle is a state-of-the-art vehicle that allows the modern WSAR unit to operate at a higher efficiency. The WSAR unit also has several support vehicles. These support vehicles provide transportation for the unit’s two boats. These vehicles are dedicated to WSAR operations, equipped with flood lights, generator, and an onboard cascade fill station that allows the unit to remain on scene while refilling tanks for prolonged operations.
All members of the Bergen County Police WSAR Team possess a current dive certification from a national agency such as the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI). In addition to being a trained underwater investigator, each diver also holds specialty certifications in one or more categories. Some of the certifications include: Dive master, Assistant Instructor, Ice Diver, Rescue Diver, Aircraft Recovery Diver, and Underwater Photographer.
The technology has changed in the last 30 years to keep pace with the changing underwater world. New technology has enabled divers to safely perform their task in an increasingly hostile environment of underwater investigation. In the last several years the officer/diver has been exposed to physical danger such as underwater debris as well as chemical and biological hazards. The closed system of dry diving suits and environmentally safe breathing apparatus provides a margin of safety that this special operation demands. All of the members of the Bergen County Police WSAR team are issued all of the equipment they will need to safely operate in any environment. Some of the equipment issued is: a fitted dry suit, an Aga full face mask (with wireless communications installed), buoyancy compensator, a weight belt, and a set of fins.
Additionally, specialized equipment such as underwater metal detectors and underwater cameras has increased the efficiency of the unit. The WSAR unit maintains two water crafts that provide work platforms for operations throughout Bergen County. Our primary boat is a 19 foot Boston Whaler Guardian with a Mercury135 horsepower outboard engine. The Boston Whaler is equipped with a rear dive door, this allows the WSAR team to conduct visual searches, as well as dive operations directly from the boat. Our second watercraft is a a Zodiac rigid hull inflatable craft with a Johnson 30 horsepower outboard engine. This watercraft is utilized when the body of water is too shallow for the Boston Whaler, or there is limited access to a boat launch.
The Bergen County Police WSAR team remains on the cutting edge of technology with the recent purchase of commercial surface air supplied Kirby-Morgan hard hat system. This new system will allow the team to free itself from the restrictions that are associated with SCUBA tanks, such as limited air supply, which means limited “bottom time” to conduct searches.