Making The FBI’s USESR Team
by Federal Bureau of Investigation
What does it take to join the FBI’s
Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team (USERT)?
certainly no easy feat ... in addition to already being a special
agent, USERT hopefuls must be certified divers and have exceptional
physical and mental stamina. They must try out for the team and then
complete rigorous basic training before embarking on a case.
Eligibility and Tryouts
Supervisory Special Agent Brian Hudson, USERT Program Manager,
explained what it takes to qualify: "USERT is open to agents only.
Once they are off probation, they are eligible to join. The main
requirement is that you have a certification from an accredited
diving organization, such as PADI (Professional Association of
Diving Instructors) or SSI (Scuba Schools International). As long as
you’re a certified diver and have completed at least 10 dives, then
you can try out for the team."
Tryouts are held once a year.
Hudson said that "the number of open slots is dependent on how many
divers we lose during the year, usually due to people retiring,
transferring, or leaving the team. Typically, each of the four dive
teams will have one to two spots open."
A FBI Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team (USERT) searches a dense swamp located in Jasper, Florida on an undisclosed date. (FBI courtesy photo)
The tryouts consist of a swim test (laps in
the pool) and an underwater skills assessment. "You’ll go down in
the water and demonstrate various skills, such as removing your mask
and putting it back on, taking gear off underwater and putting it
back on, as well as performing emergency procedures in recreational
diving," said Hudson. "A lot of those skills are brought over from
when you’re certified to scuba dive."
Next, candidates must
complete an underwater obstacle course and other tasks—all while
wearing a blacked-out mask that simulates a real-life scenario where
there’s often no visibility. Finally, potential team members
participate in a panel interview with current USERT divers.
After completing the above, candidates will learn if they’ve made
the team. But even if they don’t, they’re encouraged to try out
again the following year.
And while current USERT divers
don’t need to participate in the annual tryouts, they must pass an
annual swim test, attend at least three quarterly trainings, and
complete a minimum of two operational dives each year. "We ask for a
three-year commitment, but divers can stay on the team as long as
they want if they meet the annual requirements," said Hudson.
"As you dive in water where there’s zero visibility, sometimes
issues come up, and keeping calm and not panicking is the key to
staying safe," said Hudson.
Making it through tryouts is just the beginning of the USERT
journey—the next step is to "turn qualifying candidates into USERT
divers," said Hudson. "So, you did your recreational diving, but
what we’re doing is definitely not recreational diving."
Trainees go through USERT Basic, an intense two-week certification
course that’s held once a year in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. USERT
Basic includes instruction in:
"You start in the dry suit and in the
standard AGA facemask and learn the different search techniques we
use," explained Hudson. "As the course goes on, we introduce new
equipment and scenarios.
"For example, you’ll have the dry
suit and the AGA, but you’ll be learning emergency procedures. Then
we start adding metal detectors and then move to surface air supply
systems. We also cover things like how to lift a car underwater.
When you’re done, you’ll pretty much have touched on and learned
every basic piece of equipment we use."
On the final day of
training, USERT stages weapons in a Miami canal, where the trainees
must successfully retrieve them. "It’s a dirty environment like
they’re going to face once they’re on a real job,” explained Hudson,
who also noted that criminals tend to dispose of evidence in places
that aren’t easy to search. "We put divers to work. We have one
instructor running the dive supervisor role, but the rest of the
positions are covered by the trainees. They have to unload and set
up the gear, conduct their dive, find the weapons we’ve thrown in,
and then break everything down and clean it."
In addition to
these physical and tactical skillsets, Hudson stressed that it’s
also important for USERT divers to stay calm under pressure and
problem solve: “As you dive in water where there’s zero visibility,
sometimes issues come up, and keeping calm and not panicking is the
key to staying safe.”
Throughout their careers with USERT,
divers have opportunities to learn new skills, including courses in
boat driving, SONAR (Sound Navigation and Ranging), and ROV
(Remotely Operated Vehicles). Training is also provided to refresh
skills and to prepare the team for specific diving environments in
conjunction with their assignments—which could range from how to
dive under ice to how to dive and swim through fast-moving currents.
"They’re perishable skills, so you need to keep training," said
Meet the Agent:
Supervisory Special Agent and USERT Program Manager Brian Hudson
Diving is what I’ve been doing for a while—I’ve been diving
since about 2001 when I got certified in PADI, and I worked at a
dive shop in college.
I joined the
Bureau in 2011. My first office was Miami. Even though I didn’t join
the Bureau to become a diver, it was lucky that my first office was
Miami because that’s one of the four field offices that has a dive
team [USERT]. I wanted a collateral duty and diving was something I
enjoyed doing, so it was right up my alley to take the skillsets I
had from diving and apply them to my work. It was an opportunity to
"do what you love." The option to dive with the FBI was awesome.
I stayed on as a diver until about 2019 and then spent about two
years as a USERT training coordinator. In 2021, I became the USERT
program manager. When it comes to managing USERT, I have myself and
two other supervisory special agents. We also have a forensic
operational specialist who works with us. We manage the budget and
act as the focal point for when field offices have requests for
jobs—they send the requests to us and then we assign the teams and
program training to prepare the divers.
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