Surface Supplied Air in Public Safety Diving?

by Dan Crowell:
For the most part, many public safety dive (PSD) teams in the US consist of nothing more than a handful of volunteers, who, unrelated to their job, happen to have a recreational scuba certification. Unfortunately, those divers are inadequately trained for the work they’re being asked to do. Many city and county administrators, and even the divers themselves, have no idea of just how inadequately trained they are, or how disastrous this approach to forming a dive team is, or the potential for someone to be injured… or worse. Not to mention the potential for a lawsuit if a diver is injured on the job because they were not properly trained or don’t have the proper certifications for the job they were asked to do. Except for a handful of some of the larger cities and counties, this trend of forming and training a dive team is still the status-quo. Unfortunately, old habits are hard to break, unless something happens to provoke a change in the system. ERDI has been working hard to change this paradigm by providing one of the most comprehensive training programs available today that is specifically designed for public safety dive teams. There are other certification agencies offering a PSD certification, the ERDI curriculum seems to be grabbing the most traction and is now becoming the industry standard as well as being one of the most internationally recognized PSD certifications available today.

In the same way ERDI has been promoting public safety divers to seek out proper training and certifications for the work they do, I have been promoting the use of surface supplied dive equipment, including dive helmets or at least full face masks, for public safety divers because that’s what I believe they should be able to use, as well as scuba. More often than not, I’m met with resistance and skepticism (to say the least) not only by the commercial dive industry but by the PSD industry as well. The commercial industry will argue that most commercial dive schools have 16 plus week programs and that you can’t train someone in a week’s time to use the same gear they do. I beg to differ. Most public safety divers with the proper training and experience are already trained diving professionals and only need to be taught how to use surface supplied equipment. They don’t need to know how to burn, weld, or pour concrete; they just need to know how to utilize the gear which they can then adapt to what they do. From the PSD side I get a lot of, “What’s wrong with the scuba gear we already have?” Nothing! The surface supplied equipment is simply an addition to your scuba gear and much of the equipment your team already has can still be utilized. Surface supplied gear is just another tool in your tool box, and most likely the one you’d use primarily if you had it.

What makes surface supplied air diving so much better for public safety divers over scuba, you ask?

First off, how about having a virtually endless supply of air? Though you may have an endless supply of scuba tanks, not having to change out the diver’s tank every 30-40 minutes increases productivity exponentially and decreases the potential for mistakes by allowing the same diver to continue their work uninterrupted and/or without having the diver waste time re-orienting to the search area.

Second, how about hardwired communications (com’s)? Yes, many of you may be using wireless systems that work well in most cases, but I’d venture to say that there have been instances where they weren’t quite up to the challenge. Having good uninterrupted communications between the diver and the surface support team is critical to the diver’s safety. And, like having an endless gas supply, it also increases the team’s productivity by being able to give precise direction to the diver from the surface thereby eliminating the confusion of line pulls, or if using a wireless system, reestablishing com’s if the diver ventures out of range, or if the line of sight is broken between the diver and the receiver.

Third, having a direct physical connection to the diver. This is one of the most important and is provided by virtue of having an air hose and hardwired com’s system (umbilical). If you lose com’s, or even if the diver’s air supply gets cut off, you know where the diver is and can then commence a rescue without having to search. The diver can simply switch to his emergency gas supply and communicate via line pulls until the standby diver arrives. I know what you’re thinking – the umbilical would be cumbersome and would get in the way, or become fouled on whatever might be in the water and hinder the diver’s movement. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even though they are valid concerns, once the dive team gets the proper training and becomes proficient with the use of the equipment all of those concerns will go away. In fact, your umbilical will become not just your air and communications line, but also a tool for the diver to enter and exit the water, to perform searches, use as a traverse line, ascent and descent line, and more.

An added benefit specific to the use of helmets is, with a helmet you have additional head protection. Think about searching around docks, piers, bulkheads, etc., and then think about all the loose bolts and sharp rickety structures and rusty metal protrusions you will most likely run into. Another great benefit of using a dive helmet is the added thermal protection. Your head is completely covered in a nice warm cushion that will now keep your head the warmest part of your body while in the water. Now you just have to worry about your hands and feet, unless you’re using a hot water suit. Though these are both great perks for using a helmet, the biggest benefit is that if a diver ever becomes unconscious, due to some sort of medical issue, the potential for the diver to survive a drowning event is dramatically increased over scuba, or even a full face mask.

Overall, surface supplied diving for public safety divers is something all dive teams should look into if they haven’t already. Though you may think it might be more complicated, it’s not. It’s just a different and safer approach to getting the job done, and it’s a true team effort that promotes working together to be safe and productive at the same time. Public safety divers are working divers and that’s how they should be regarded. The equipment is not just dive gear; it’s their personal safety equipment and should be viewed as such. To have a recreational open water certified diver enlisted to do a working dive is not just a bad idea; it has the potential of being a disastrous idea. If your team is not already trained in PSD diving, you should really consider looking into getting the proper training, whether it’s using scuba or surface supplied. The days of training in-house without the appropriate training, experience and instructor certifications are becoming much less acceptable. We all know there are budgetary constraints, but that’s no reason to purposely put someone in harm’s way with less than appropriate training, or to use inadequate equipment for the job. Be smart and be safe and remember, “It’s what you learn after you think you know it all that counts”.

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