Importance of the Back-Up Diver

One of the basic team member roles that is sometimes taken for granted is the back-up diver, who should be present at every team deployment that results in a diver entering the water. What led me to make that statement was a recollection of a conversation I had with a founding member of a county dive team a few years ago. In the course of that conversation, my friend mentioned that he himself was the most experienced and strongest member of the team and as such, often was the first team diver to enter the water. While I agreed with his statement about his skills, I took the position that a lesser-experienced team member should be the first in the water – -the diver down – – to start the mission and that someone such as himself should perhaps be the back-up diver in place. Let’s take a brief look at the back-up diver and the role’s importance to the team mission.

Without getting into a discussion about NFPA guidelines or OSHA compliance or exemption, it is pretty much standard operating procedure for any team that whenever a team has a member in the water, a back-up diver is fully suited along with a back-up tender fully prepared ready to go. In fact, some ERDI teams will go a step further and have a third diver waiting in the wings, partially geared up, should that diver be needed. Recalling the conversation mentioned earlier, it is in this role, the back-up diver, that we would want our strongest member to be. Let’s face it, if the back-up diver enters the water, that team member is now, truly, a rescue diver. His primary role is now activated and he will certainly have his hands full with making a variety of decisions. This mission’s goal now goes from performing a PSD dive to one of potentially dealing with a panicked diver who is out of air, disoriented or even worse. A dive accident is certainly the last thing we need at this point. Remember goal #1 is that everyone gets to go home on their own accord. So with all that in mind, it makes sense to have your strongest and most experienced diver as the back-up diver to insure that this mission change does not turn into a nightmare for the team. And certainly the primary diver is, at a minimum, assured that if a problem does require the deployment of the back-up diver, that team member is the best suited for the job.

There are other considerations about the back-up diver that enter into the discussion. Not every team enjoys the luxury of having a fully-staffed team available at all times, for all calls. Often times in our capacity as a team member we are called upon to perform a variety of tasks simply due to manpower shortages. Unfortunately, some duties go unfulfilled. By having your back-up diver standing by with a dedicated back-up tender, you can utilize that tender to fill other roles, such as taking notes of the dive or sketching a map of the scene. It must be pointed out, however, that should the back-up diver be deployed, the back-up tender’s complete focus is on his diver. And it cannot go without saying that the primary tender should not be tending the back-up diver when deployed, the focus of the primary tender still needs to be on his diver.

From time to time, an incident commander will have to make tough decisions without having the proper resources. Many times in these cases, it will be the SOG that guides the IC as well as risk vs. benefit for that particular call. Let’s hope that not having a back-up diver is not one of the decisions made!

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