cave diving

How Cave and Cavern Diving will Make you a better PSD

By: James McKenzie

It was a cool North Florida morning. The mist flowed through the trees and rose off the water in the run like a light smoke from a smoldering fire. I was just 20 feet from the entry point of the water with my gear spread across equipment stands and a picnic table. I was preparing my gear for a dive into an underwater cave alongside several dive buddies. This was a typical process for a cave diver, but for me, the only Public Safety Diver, the process mirrored the procedure associated with a dive mission. 

Preparing for the dive 

On this particular morning, as my buddies prepared, it occurred to me that the similarities were striking. Individually, I set up my gear, checking and rechecking each item. I ensured that my systems worked, then I checked the back-up system that I carried. We had already planned our dive and determined the safe limit that we would be diving to prior to entry. Our teams had looked over our gas and tank sizes to determine turn points, building in the safety factors needed for the dive. Then we moved off to do our final equipment preparation and geared up.

Finally geared up and feeling ready, we each paired off with our dive buddy and did head-to-toe checks on land before entry and further checks. I started from the top and worked my way down, finding no problems. My buddy started his check of me and there it was, a hose under my chest strap. It was not a big problem here, but it could have been under different conditions in the water. We fixed it and moved into the water, completed our checks, and set off on the dive. 

It was a great day in the water, and we experienced no problems on the dive. I thought how we worked as a well-organized group of divers, much like a professional dive team that trains together, but I was the only public safety diver. Each of these cave divers worked and operated the way a Public Safety Dive Team would dive. That’s when I realized the true benefit this type of dive training, cavern or cave, could be to the PSD world.

Would being cave trained make me a better PSD?

Many dive teams around the country and even the world struggle to find ways to make team training more realistic and beneficial for their members. Teams spend countless hours practicing skills in the pool and untold weekends in the local quarry or lake just to find something missing. But, the truth of the matter is there is only so much you can do with a blacked-out mask and a wide-open body of water. Search as we might, finding realism is difficult. There is, however, a form of diving that can provide the true confined environment and the darkest dark that a PSD will experience on a true mission…. Cave and Cavern Diving.

Cave Diving, as the name states, is diving that takes place in a cave, or the entrance to a cave where sunlight is still visible, the cavern. The truest of confined space diving and the absolute lowest of light conditions can be found as a diver ventures further into cave systems. What could be more realistic for a PSD? Additionally, the skills involved in Cave and Cavern dive training only tend to improve a PSD. Technical competence in diving is a must in cave diving, knowing one’s skills and abilities in the water is of the utmost importance when you are fighting current in a confined environment, often in zero light. Translate this scenario to one involving a PSD and the same skillsets when he or she is attempting to find that key piece of evidence or a drowning victim.

Cave and Cavern diving is a branch of technical diving and very much mirrors the training a diver receives to dive deeper depths in open water. The difference is this form of technical diving takes place in rock corridors in the earth.

The skills involved include: 

  • Team Communications
  • Breathing Control
  • Advanced Finning Techniques
  • Buoyancy
  • Trim Control

All of these skills are invaluable to a PSD. Furthermore, the cave diver also learns many things concerning equipment that will improve their skills in the PSD world. These equipment skills include streamlining, redundancy, line work for navigation, and equipment maintenance.

Skills 

Let’s get started with skills. First and foremost, is communication. It is absolutely critical that you are able to communicate with your team or buddy in the water should a situation arise. When I was getting ready for my cave dive in Florida, it was important that the entire team worked out what the plan for the dive was and what the turn points would be. Individually, we each needed to know where equipment was located on each other should the need for it present itself. In the water, we all needed to be on the same page as far as our hand signals were concerned, which we covered in our predive checks. All of these communication points are mirrored in public safety operations that involve divers. In knowing the same language underwater, we reduce stress and ensure our messages are received and understood when we need to relay essential information.

As mentioned earlier, breathing control is very important in cave diving and translates to PSD as well. Many times, in a cave you must work your way against the flow or current. This is a fight in and of itself, and breathing will become labored. You will feel short of breath or starved for air. Cave diving teaches divers to stay within their physical ability to conserve air and not become exhausted. Translated to the PSD world, an ability to control your breathing on a real mission will extend a diver’s time on-site to search, reduce diver fatigue, and possibly improve team success.

Advanced finning techniques in cave diving mostly involve the frog kick, which is one of the most efficient techniques in diving. In essence, the diver’s legs are at a 90-degree angle, foot flat. They rotate the feet out then in, push backward, and glide. This method will keep the diver’s feet off the bottom and result in less “silting” of the water, which is a common problem in PSD, if the scene does not involve blackwater already. Improvement in finning also reduces the stress and strain on the diver, saving energy. 

Buoyancy and Trim control are extremely important in the world of cave diving and can greatly benefit a PSD. In the flow of the cave and near cave walls, a diver must have the ability to put themselves in the right spot in the water to prevent contact. Proper trim in the water ensures the diver is sitting level and control of both buoyancy and trim improves efficiency. Improving the diver’s efficiency in the water reduces stress, extends air supply, lowers the possibility of exhaustion and makes for a safer dive. The benefits of all of these points are obvious to a PSD. Safety being paramount to a PSD mission, so improved skill in these areas clearly benefit a team.

Equipment 

The first equipment difference between a PSD and a cave diver is streamlining. Streamlining involves the setting of equipment to reduce the drag associated with the flow of water in the cave. As with the skills discussed earlier, streamlining is beneficial because it reduces stress to the diver, prevents entanglement, and staves off exhaustion. Many divers have a set configuration that they dive and follow it religiously. Once a diver has found their streamlined configuration and placed equipment, they will know where things are and be more comfortable. The comfort level helps to give a diver reassurance about getting themselves out of a tough spot should they need to extract themselves.

The PSD can benefit immensely from developing a good streamlined configuration of equipment. The same benefits that a cave diver would experience, the PSD will experience as well. Considering the blackwater aspect of PSD, knowing exactly where equipment is located will ease the divers’ mind, while reducing the number of snag points on the PSDs equipment setup.

Redundancy in cave diving also flourishes in the PSD world. One of the hallmarks of technical diving is redundancy…it is also one of the reasons that the costs of having a PSD team can be so high. In essence, redundancy means you will have at least one back-up for everything, whether it is your air supply, lights, or cutting tools. Training as a cave diver, you must practice redundancy and the understanding that if one system fails, the redundant system just gets you out — it doesn’t continue the mission. 

Leaving a trail home or running a line could be one of the most important equipment related skills that you ever learn in PSD, Cave, and Cavern diving. The line is the way home in the event of silting out or if visibility never existed from the start. It is also invaluable in the search process in either environment. When training in cave systems, students run line after line, learning to place them in a manner that avoids becoming hazardous to other divers. In the caves, divers learn to be confident in the skills they develop and trust the line and their marking techniques. In the PSD world, confidence in having good line skills helps to make the diver more efficient which can again translate to saving time and reducing stress, along with increased success on missions. 

Equipment maintenance is much the same for any type of diving, but in cave diving and PSD, divers tend to be more intimately aware of the needs of their equipment. In the PSD team world, there may be a logistics officer with a maintenance plan in place, and the diver may be less concerned about equipment. Divers training in a cave will develop a greater appreciation for their equipment and with that appreciation, they will be better equipped to assist their teams in identifying equipment maintenance needs and possibly contribute to future purchases.

Costs of Training 

Cave and Cavern training costs can be substantial, ranging from $500-$1500 per person. Equipment needs can also be high, but if you share the equipment with the team, these costs can be offset. Additionally, there may be travel costs in reaching certain locations such as northern Florida. These costs, in my opinion, are minimal if it produces a team that reduces the overall risk of a Line of Duty Death and increases mission success. 

Finally, the benefits of training are something that can only be measured by the teams results in the field. The addition of the most realistic training possible can only increase a team’s success and will pay dividends for years into the future.

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