To protect and serve goes a whole lot deeper for members of the SAP search and rescue team, writes Bernadette Wolhuter.

The dedicated team of police divers, who worked non-stop for six days to recover the body of Midmar Mile swimmer Herman van Straten last week, said while it was a tough job, search and rescue was their calling.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” says Warrant Officer Ian Cowley.

Cowley, who has been a police diver with the Pietermaritzburg team for more than 25 years, and Warrant Officer Michael Bennett, who was with the dog unit for 18 years and has been working with Cowley since 2009, sat down with The Mercury last week to talk about the highs and lows of their work.

When they spoke of the camaraderie among their team members and of the sense of reward that came with saving a life or giving a family closure, their eyes welled up. It was not an easy job, they said.

“People want to be divers because they think it’s about sitting around a braai all day, but it’s not like that,” Cowley said.

“They think we come here, put on our gear and go, but it’s complicated. We have to sit with tables and charts to calculate how long and how deep we can dive.”

Even the training was a challenge. It included a pre-selection phase, during which prospective divers had to complete several swimming exercises in specific times, without being able to rest in-between.

“It’s very physical,” said Bennett. “For example, you might have to do 300m of freestyle in 10 minutes, then 200m of breaststroke in eight minutes, then tread water and then retrieve weights from the bottom of a pool.”

Basic maths tests, medical exams and first aid courses were also part of this phase of training.

“We have to be able to look after each other because a lot of the time, we’re out there in the middle of nowhere and if something goes wrong, we have to be able to at least stabilise a colleague before they can be taken to hospital,” said Cowley.

The country’s only training facility for police divers was in Pretoria, he added, and trainees underwent a nine-week training course there.

But they could only teach you so much, said Bennett.

“You only really start to learn once you’re on the job and as a police diver, you are always on the job.”

The five-man Pietermaritzburg team – which covers a vast area including Msinga, Himeville, Ladysmith and Shongweni – works nine-hour shifts, five days a week, but is on standby 24 hours a day.

“Ninety percent of our jobs take place after hours,” said Bennett.

A single father, he said it was difficult balancing work and family. Some jobs kept him away from home for days at a time.

Recently, the team spent 36 hours at a mine in Ladysmith.

“You have to have a very understanding family. My son knows what it means when my phone rings, and before I even answer, he says: ‘See you later, Dad’.”

But Bennett also said the bond the team members shared helped ease the pain of being away from his family for long periods.

“We are like a family. We laugh together, we even shout at one another, but we’re very close,” he said.

And that was important when you were diving. Class 4 police divers can dive up to 30m.

“You have to trust your buddy, because down there it’s another world and your life often depends on your colleague,” Cowley said.

And it was not just human buddies the men were talking about.

The rescue dogs helped the men narrow down their searches and were an essential part of the work they did, said Bennett.

Incredibly, the dogs pick up the scent of oils that are released by a body and float to the surface of the water.

“They really help us,” he said.

Both men found it extremely difficult dealing with child-related emergencies.

“That’s the worst,” said Bennett.

“You always think of your own children,” said Cowley, who is also a father.

And the actual diving was physically taxing.

“After an extreme dive you can’t drink hot coffee or have a hot shower,” said Bennett.

This was so that your body could acclimatise to being above the water again.

But the best part of the job?

The men beamed as they recalled how they managed to resuscitate a man who was clinically dead. The man had attempted to commit suicide by drowning himself.

“Two weeks later, he was on the streets again,” said Cowley.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys come and go,” said Cowley, “but it doesn’t help to chase money. They always say: ‘Money in the front door, love out the back door.’”

The Mercury