We all knew this intuitively, but now a state report has underscored it: Craig Lehner should still be alive today.
Lehner, a Buffalo police officer, died last October in an underwater training accident. While taking part in a dive team practice, the 34-year-old officer’s tether got caught on a boulder in the Niagara River, off Bird Island Pier. As he turned around, the river’s current tore the regulator apparatus from his mouth, causing him to drown. Three cut marks on the nylon tether suggest that he had tried to free himself. Lehner’s body was recovered four days later.
Now, a report by the state Labor Department’s Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau shows the Buffalo Police Department violated four federal safety standards in its underwater program. The investigation cited the department for failing to:
- Assess the hazardous conditions of the swift-moving river.
- Provide Lehner with “rescue/self-rescue training.”
- Require police Underwater Rescue Team members to carry secondary emergency air tanks.
- Keep adequate records.
There is no guarantee that an accident wouldn’t have occurred anyway – police work is inherently dangerous – but if either of the first two of these requirement had been followed, that terrible day may have played out differently.
The third policy would obviously have made a difference, too, although Detective Leo McGrath, the team’s commander, says divers do not take emergency tanks into the river because it “makes it harder for divers to maintain control of their posture when swimming downstream, which could lead to complications.” That could certainly be true, but we also know the lethal cost of not having a spare tank. The department’s conclusion bears review.
The department has 60 days to come into compliance and, in the only good news out of this event, police say they have already addressed most of the issues. That’s a start, but more should be done.
For example, New York lacks its own standards on diving by public employees. There is no need to be duplicative, but with two Great Lakes to the west, Lake Champlain and the Hudson River on the east and hundreds of miles of oceanfront, water-based work is a given for many public safety agencies. Does the state need its own policies?
This would also be a good moment for police in Buffalo and elsewhere around Western New York to review their training programs to determine if there are other areas where they are violating oversight standards or otherwise putting their employees at unnecessary risk. Fire departments should take the painful hint, as well.
These public services do necessary, dangerous work. We should be in the business of protecting them.