Does Sidemount Configuration Have a Place in Public Safety Diving?

By Phil DePalo


Photo by Mark Phillips

If you read this month’s SDI newsletter, you read all about sidemount diving taking a role in the recreational world. Once considered a skill of technical cave divers, sidemount diving has found a place with everyday divers. What role can it play in Public Safety Diving? This question is best answered by looking at the benefits of sidemount diving.

  • First, sidemount diving was originally used by cave divers in order to streamline their profile and aid them in navigating through tight spaces; doubles worn on the back were too restrictive and cumbersome.
  • Second, sidemount diving aligns tanks parallel to the spine providing better weight distribution.
  • Third, since the tanks are clipped to the BCD once in the water, it can reduce the amount of weight that is carried to the dive site because of the ability to carry cylinders one at a time instead of hauling around heavy doubles.

I will not disagree with some of the advantages noted above, but I want to compare those advantages to Public Safety Diving. The first point for comparison is in the ERDI curriculum which highlights standardization of equipment among teams and team members. In order to achieve a high level of efficiency a team must approach each unique operation using methods that are repeatable. This means using the same approach each time, starting from dispatch. As an ERDI instructor, I have had the opportunity to work with many PSD teams. I can tell you one trait of highly effective teams is preparation. Their equipment is always set up and ready to go. The gear is inspected regularly and is always returned in the same configuration. This sets an expectation among the team. If a team member has been away for three weeks, they can immediately respond to a call knowing the setup has not changed. This aids in response time and team member confidence in the operation and equipment. Standardization among team members and the equipment is essential.

Current methods of scuba instruction use back mounted cylinders, and with sidemount diving it is suggested that you have a minimum certification level of advanced scuba diver. Until this most basic training curriculum changes, I would not suggest sidemount diving for a PSD team. One might argue that if a team starts a training regimen involving only sidemount diving then members will now have it as an expectation. Many teams train and work with other local and regional PSD teams who may or may not use this method, but one thing is for sure, they learned back mount diving from the beginning. Keeping with the theme of standardization among teams and team members, we should choose the least common denominator. Pete Nawrocky of Dive Rite, talks about sidemount diving stating, “Hose routing is completely different than what is normally seen…” He continues on, “There are a variety of configurations regarding hose routing for the regulators second stage.” Sidemount setups should be customized to each individual diver, but this can lead to confusion among PSD team members using team equipment. PSD teams do not have the resources to provide each member with their own set of gear.

Another advantage is ergonomic configuration. This is certainly valuable to the recreational diver who dives with only their buddy, or even as an SDI certified solo diver. PSD teams respond with many resources and have roles dedicated to assisting the rescue diver with gear and transport to the dive site negating the ergonomic benefit for the PSD team member. Sidemount also highlights the advantage of carrying single cylinders vs heavy doubles, but PSD teams do not use doubles given the time limited profiles we use. The latest NFPA standards in structural firefighting require air bottles to alarm at 33% remaining time vs the 25% remaining previous standard. Similarly PSD teams will exchange divers well before the accepted recreational standards for remaining pressure. If you choose to use only a single sidemount tank, then you need to compensate with weighting.

PSD teams do require the use of an independent redundant air source as a backup in case of emergency and the ability to share this backup with another diver. One could make the argument that you are already slinging this backup cylinder as you would sidemount bottles, but this is usually a 19 or 30 cf pony bottle vs a full sized cylinder and as such, does not compare in size, usage or configuration. In sidemount diving, both cylinders are used for the primary diver; one is typically associated with the BCD and the other for the dry suit. Sidemount cylinders are also supposed to be used in a coordinated manner to maintain trim, adding the additional task of switching second stage regulators throughout the dive.

Many of the listed advantages of sidemount diving are beneficial for the recreational diver; PSD teams operate in such a way that these advantages are not applicable. In addition, we demonstrated how adopting a new configuration can add to inconsistency and a lack of standardization among teams and team members. This can lead to reduced response times, increased equipment problems due to lack of familiarization and difficulty working with mutual aid teams. A highly efficient PSD team will be consistent in training, equipment and practices so that each operation is routine, even though every operation is unique.

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About the author: Philip DePalo is an active Public Safety Dive Instructor in Baltimore County working with the Bowleys Quarters Volunteer Fire Department Marine Emergency Team and the Middle River Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue Company Dive Team. If you have specific questions, please contact him at

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6 replies
  1. Skip Kendrick
    Skip Kendrick says:

    I agree with this assessment, but also think it deserves consideration for open water beginning divers. The benefits of side mounted doubles are not realized in recreational diving and creates confusion and other difficulties on charter boats. The OOA diver approaching a sidemounted diver may be confused due to the unique and unfamiliar gear configuration of the sidemounted diver. the need for two tanks in recreational diving is simply nonexistent, back mounted single tanks are far easier to get into the water and out of the water, divemaster and boat captains are far more experienced at helping single tank back mounted divers and may be confused about side mount systems, walking on deck with two side mounted tanks, giant stride, boat exits are all more problematic and dangerous than single back mount. And if you put your tanks over the side planning on hooking up in the water – what boat captain thinks it’s ok to do a giant stride with no air supply? And to return to the boat, hook up tanks to a hang line, then wait on a current line with no regulator, no air tank? Sounds like the dangers of side mounting in open water from a charter boat far outweigh the “advantages” of which I can think of none. Maybe doubles technical diving is safer with side mounted tanks, but certainly not recreational diving.

  2. mark simmons
    mark simmons says:

    I agree with the author. Standardized training, approaches, equipment and interviewing techniques are important to ensuring an efficient operation regardless of the unique situation. its when we freelance, introduce new equipment where everyone lacks the training that things begin to fall apart. I personally enjoy sidemount diving recreationally, but it is setup for me. The equipment is unique to my situation and would not fit the next person. Nice article, would like to see more stuff from this author.

  3. Smdiver
    Smdiver says:

    As far as Publice Safety, team diving approach is extremely valuable, but I have seen many Fire/Rescue Teams dive in many different configurations. In regard to standards some Training Agencies have included SideMount in Open Water Training. I have been diving Sidemount in recreational for 4 years now and its much safer than any back mount. MHO

    • Jeff Statham
      Jeff Statham says:

      We also are looking at this as a possibility in the future. Even as just another class to add to our toolkit for now. It cant hurt to take the class and learn.

  4. Jeff Statham
    Jeff Statham says:

    I am an ERDI diver. I think one problem we have is some PSD organizations selling dive gear. And they at all cost want us to continue using what they sell. And training their way. And blaming everyone else because we don’t all think like robots and follow them. The method used is what serves your teams needs. And what you train with. When I dive, I dive with our team members. I don’t like to dive with others I have no experience with on a call. When we need their divers they dive together and they are more comfortable. I believe we will see future changes. Some will be good, some will not. But to say this is what we say has always worked and we don’t apply bias to what is called real world accidents is ridiculous. I could bring up some and say they wouldn’t have occurred if you use my way. And it causes one thing. It stifles new and better ideas. One thing is for sure. I am 54 years old and spent most of it in Public Safety. And when we stop progressing and bettering what we do we will eventually fail. Any great ideas please write about them. I would love to see more. I learn everyday.


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