Sidemount and Public Safety Diving

By Thomas Powell

The sport of scuba diving is one that has grown and developed through innovation. Over the years, explorers, inventors, and open-minded individuals have designed methods, equipment, and concepts that have driven the sport forward. Change and new styles of diving have kept the sport fresh and kept consumers interested. One of these innovations is sidemount diving. The principle behind sidemount diving is that a diver can take one or more cylinders and streamline them along his or her side with the valve below or behind the armpit.

Years ago, divers realized that a gear configuration was needed that took cylinders off a diver’s back. To squeeze through tight passages, explore unseen locations, or to simply give individuals the chance to dive who cannot support back-mounted equipment, sidemount diving was born. As time has progressed, more and more divers have taken sidemount classes and many have decided to purchase sidemount equipment. What was new and innovative has now became a more mainstream form of scuba diving. On a daily basis, you can find groups debating sidemount configurations, cylinder trim, or new rigging techniques on almost any social media outlet.

Sidmount VS. Public Safety Diving

Innovation often begets further innovation. As sidemount diving has become more popular in the recreational community, discussions have arisen regarding implementing sidemount diving methods into the realm of public safety diving. After all, the idea behind sidemount diving is to utilize equipment in a fashion that allows cylinders to be dropped and picked up, streamlines a diver’s profile, and even allows a diver to enter into tight spaces. This style of diving has worked in the wreck and cave diving communities, why would it not work in public safety? Public safety divers often find themselves in situations where the ability to add or remove cylinders in an easy fashion could be beneficial. Similarly, public safety divers often find themselves working in restricted or confined environments where side-mounted gas could streamline a diver’s profile and provide him or her better control over equipment management.

The concept of public safety divers using a side-mounted gear configuration is one that has been debated in a wide fashion online. Many individuals believe that what has worked in common practice should not be altered. Changing equipment would require alterations to departmental operating procedures and further training. Changes and training may require monies, consent, and votes from leadership. Each of these factors can be difficult to obtain. The worry is that implementing multiple methods into operational standards can cause confusion and failure. Public safety divers often rely on muscle memory to recall the location of equipment items when visibility is poor. The potential use of multiple equipment configurations may outweigh the benefits provided by sidemount diving.

Training Quality

Another argument associated with sidemount diving within public safety is the quality of training. The argument that is often made is that not every sidemount instructor out in the world should be teaching sidemount diving. Despite the fact that people have been diving side-mounted configurations for many years, standardized teaching methods have only been established in the last few years. New things often scare those who have been happy following past practices. The reality is that those who argue over sidemount training often debate how cylinders should be mounted, where bungees should be placed, whether D-rings or rails work better, and various other topics. In essence, many of those people debating believe in many of the same principles, they simply cannot agree on some of the finer factors associated with those principles. One group or professional simply may worry that the finer points of sidemount diving taught by others will not be sufficient for establishing safe diving practices for students.

In contrast to those who debate side-mounted public safety diving methods, many individuals see sidemount training as another tool in the tool kit of the modern public safety diver. The ability to use equipment or methods of any type in a safe fashion to help others may be beneficial. In regard to training, there will always be good and bad instructors in any field of education. We have to take common sense, knowledge, and experience and use these factors to develop our own sensible  practices. Like any form of training, you should seek out the best educators and work hard to learn from various resources to expand and develop your own knowledge.

The Benefits of Sidemount

The reality about sidemount diving is that equipment can be donned easily and bottles can be interchanged with ease. It fits the bill very well for fulfilling the needs of public safety divers and dive teams. A team can arrive on scene and cylinders can be staged at or near the water by a tender. A diver using this type of configuration does not have to carry cylinders to and from the water, and gas sources can be swapped easily through the use of pre-staged (rigged) cylinders. Another reality is that if one is worried about muscle memory and equipment configurations, a team could simply switch to sidemount diving at all times.

Think about the reality of confined spaces. Side-mounted gas would allow a diver to approach something like a submerged school bus. If needed, he or she could drop a bottle at the entrance to the bus. A line could be laid from the area of that bottle into the vehicle as the diver performs a search. This action would reduce the diver’s profile, but also allow a redundant gas supply to remain close at hand (if the bottle had to be dropped). Similarly, the act of hooking the two cylinders into a switch block would allow for the potential use of two full-sized cylinders throughout the dive. This would create the possibility of an increased gas supply (compared to standard AL80 cylinder with pony bottle), and dual gas sources as is custom. With the use of pony systems in public safety diving, many teams are already side-mounting (or side-slinging) backup systems. The switch to full sidemount configurations would not be a big alteration and may even provide greater comfort for the divers who are often inundated with equipment for public safety operations.

The truth about sidemount diving in public safety diving operations is that standard backmount diving is the current norm in the United States. Deviation from the norm is difficult. In many cases, it has taken years to acquire the equipment and training needed to perform backmount operations. Making the switch to side-mounted configurations may not be financially sensible even if it would be beneficial. On the other hand, the idea of acquiring one or two sidemount systems for specific operations may be a sensible action for any team. System requirements may be as simple as a few rigged bottles, some bungees and butt plates that could be added to almost any plate system already in use by a team. These accessories could be stored on any truck or trailer to make a quick conversion to sidemount as needed.  Having one or two divers trained to dive sidemount as needed would also be an extra resource available to a team.

In my own personal experience, I have seen various teams make the switch from back-mounted gas with side-mounted pony systems to buoyancy compensator systems (standard BC systems and plate systems) that can utilize both back and side-mounted gas sources. This allows teams to use whatever gas is available and to dive using whatever method is deemed necessary by an incident commander on scene. Many of the divers associated with these teams like the idea of bringing cylinders in close to the body and having improved control over valves (when compared to back-mounted configurations). Similarly, many team leaders like the idea of paying for back plate accessories to expand operational potential rather than purchasing an entire new run of buoyancy compensation systems. Despite the mindset of frugal team leaders, many of the manufactured sidemount systems available on the market would be ideal for streamlined and close-quarters public safety work (and storage).

If you or your team does make the decision to integrate sidemount diving into your operational programs, please do take the time to find a quality instructor and to get wet as often as you can to practice and prepare for this type of diving during situations where visibility may be gone. New methods must be practiced before they are implemented in public safety diving. Take the time to learn in a proper fashion and use the education to better support your community and your team mates.

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