Underwater communications are essential to good teamwork

By Steven M. Barsky

com

photo by Steven Barsky. Surface-supplied diving gear is a good way to go when diving in polluted water. All communications with surface-supplied gear are normally hard-wire. Here, FBI Dive Team members train in body recovery in San Pedro, California.

If there is one thing that is essential to working effectively underwater, it’s teamwork. And, to work as a cohesive unit, everyone in your team must effectively communicate, both topside and underwater. While you can get by with hand signals for ordinary recreational diving, for any type of professional diving, verbal communications are vital to teamwork. The proper use of communications technology, and the content of what you say and how you say it, are distinguishing characteristics that separate the amateur public safety dive teams from the professionals. We could write a book on this topic, but we’ll attempt to summarize some of the most important points here.

Hardware Choices

The two types of electronic communications for diving are wireless and hard wire systems.  If you are using conventional scuba gear, you can use wireless with a tether or a tether that has integrated communications wiring. Even if you use wireless communications, the use of a tether is essential for safety reasons. Without a tether, it can be impossible for your teammates to find you should you become unconscious and stop breathing while you are underwater.

Divers using surface-supplied gear will, of course, have a communications wire built into their umbilical. Using surface-supplied gear with a diving helmet rather than a full-face mask will give you the best communications and provide the highest degree of safety. Surface-supplied gear is always preferred for diving in polluted water whenever contaminants can have long-term negative health effects, or cause serious injury or death.

What You Say and How You Say It

To have good communications on a dive team requires a leader who sets an example by communicating effectively and encourages team members to speak up when they have a concern. In my experience in dealing with commercial, scientific, and public safety divers I’ve always observed that most people are hesitant to speak up about safety issues until another individual voices a concern. Following the identification of a safety issue, other team members will frequently thank the individual who spoke up for identifying a problem that they noticed but were afraid to call to anyone’s attention. On the best dive teams, this should not happen.

How you say things is also very important. If you’re a team leader, you can make or break the people on your team through careless remarks, especially thoughtless criticism. A team leader needs to be firm, but fair and consistent. Encourage your people and work to bring out the best in each diver.

Procedures are Important

Following good protocols is essential for good communications with divers who are working underwater. Probably the single most important skill for the dive supervisor, or whoever is running the dive, is to develop good listening skills. Learn to listen to what the diver is saying, how he says it, and his breathing. By following this procedure you will have more and better insights into what the diver is doing and how he is coping with the stress of the dive.

More importantly, as the dive supervisor running the topside communications, avoid the temptation to enter into idle chatter with the diver. Keep your side of the conversation brief. Avoid talking over the diver. This is especially important if you are using a two-wire communication system where topside over-rides the diver’s speech. Listen more than you talk. Keep your communications short, i.e., 15-20 seconds, and wait for the diver to respond. Never drone on and on for any extended period of time.

As a diver, it’s important to let topside know where you are at all times as well as to keep them informed as to what you’re doing. Always be honest about what actions you are taking and what progress you have made on the job at hand.

Both the diver and topside need to be explicit as possible when giving or responding to directions. As a diver, if you want the tender to take up the slack in your tether or umbilical, tell them how much slack you want them to take up as well as how fast you want them to take it up. As a supervisor running a dive, you must be sure to keep track of the diver’s bottom time and ensure that they get off the bottom with a margin of safety. If your policy is to not run decompression dives, then allow enough time for the diver to get clear of the bottom and make his safety stop without running up against the no-decompression limits.

Bottom Line

You can have the best wireless communication or hard-wire system, but if you don’t use it properly, you’re wasting a valuable asset. Safety must always come first for the public safety diver and communications are a vital component of safety.


About the author

Steven M. Barsky is the author of the book, Diving in High-Risk Environments. He has worked extensively with public safety dive teams, and has experience in sport, scientific, and commercial diving. For more information, contact Steve through his website at www.hammerheadpress.com.

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