Plan Your Dive and Everything Else, too

By: Jay White

There is a common theme throughout the diving world. It’s an adage that applies regardless of certification level. This includes:

  • The Open Water Diver course, where new students learn the basics.
  • Advanced and Specialty Diver courses such, as Deep Diver and Solo Diver. Here large portions of the training deal with more detailed and precise information.
  • Technical diving courses such as Extended Range, Advanced Trimix and Full Cave Diver.

The adage? Plan your dive and dive your plan.

The only difference between a 10 m/33 ft reef dive and the exploration of  a new cave system is:

  • The amount of detail involved
  • The severity of the consequences for deviating from that plan.

But the premise is still the same: Plan the progression of your dive and then follow that progression.

For the Supervisor on a Public Safety dive site, the plan needs to include much more than just the actual dive itself. Given the nature of a Public Safety Dive Team mission, it requires up to five or more dive team members for every diver in the water. As supervisor, you are  ultimately responsible for everyone’s safety. Due to this added responsibility, there are a number of questions the Supervisor should answer for themselves before putting divers in the water. These include:

  • What’s the plan?
  • How are divers getting into the water?
  • The divers are in. Now what?
  • How am we getting divers out of the water?
  • How are we getting an unconscious diver out of the water?
  • What is the evacuation plan?
  • What is the backup evacuation plan?

Let’s look at each one.

What’s the plan?

First and foremost is “What is the dive plan?” because that is the reason the team is on site.

  • Witness interviews
  • Discussions with investigators
  • Last known point
  • Water conditions

This information will help you answer questions such as:

  • Will there be one diver on a line or two?
  • Which search patterns will you use?
  • Which methods will ensure entire areas are covered adequately

All of these things factor into the actual dive plan. Teams tend to be very good at this stage of planning. Their knowledge and team experience in local conditions helps them know what will and will not work in a given situation.

There are many factors that affect good public safety dive planning. It would take a separate article to cover properly. This is why Dive Supervisor training focuses so much on the planning of dives.

Once you establish the plan and the team knows what the actual dive is going to be. The Supervisor now needs to extend their planning past the actual dive and consider other areas such as getting in, the site during the dive and getting out.

How are divers getting into the water?

The first question may seem rather obvious. You cannot start a dive without getting in the water. Given the nature of work of public safety diving, it is not unusual to be in areas where ‘normal’ divers would never consider entering. The best entry points are not always obvious. It sometimes requires complex planning just to get to the edge of the water. Among the questions to ask:

  • With a steep bank from the staging area to the water, is it better to dress the diver at the water’s edge or slowly back down the bank on a line in full gear?
  • Are the rocks too slippery to stand on?
  • Is there a place for divers to put their fins on?
  • Once near the water, what is the best way to get into the water?
  • If the water is “icky,” should divers don full face masks at the water’s edge or before they get near it?

There is a reason that scuba publications show fantastic pictures of divers doing perfect giant stride entries into gin-clear, warm water. Public safety divers sitting in mud, doing the standard public safety “butt scooch” into dark water just wouldn’t sell.

Getting in is rarely pretty for public safety divers. However, appearance is not the goal. Safety is. Because water is icky (see an upcoming article for more details) should the diver don their full face mask at the water’s edge or before they get near it? A diver should not be ‘winging it’ in full gear trying to figure out how to get to the water. By scouting out the best entry location and procedure ahead of time, you can help ensure your divers are in the water and able to start work with as little effort and danger as possible.

The divers are in. Now what?

Just because the dive plan for the diver in the water is covered there is still work to be done. Further planning is required by the Supervisor as they have more to consider than just the diver, they still have the topside team to consider. Prior to starting the dive, the requirements for the remainder of the team need to be dealt with. This includes:

Tenders: Especially if the dive plan includes a line tended search. Questions to answer include:

  • Where will the tender (or tenders) stand?
  • Is it a safe place for them to comfortably work from for an extended period of time?
  • Can they control the search pattern and monitor the divers from where they are?
  • Once a spot is located for the tenders to work, what personal protective equipment (PPE) will they need to do their job safely?

Standby/safety/backup divers: No matter what the team calls it, the diver who sits fully dressed, topside for the duration of the dive to be used to affect a rescue if required is hands-down the worst job on the site.

Sitting in heavy gear, exposed to the elements, until needed. Most of the time, their sole task is monitoring the dive and staying alert. Standby divers usually have the warmest or coldest job. They are almost always the most uncomfortable person on the site.

Where should the standby divers stage from? Ideally, they should be close to the water where divers can enter rapidly. However if facing difficult entry point, this may not be the most practical.

The more common problem is extreme weather. Public safety dive teams are called on to work in conditions ranging from 40° C/105° F down to -45° C/-50° F.

You can station standby divers at the water’s edge. Here they can quickly enter the water. However, if they are suffering from borderline hypothermia or heat exhaustion, can they be both safe and effective?

It may be better to have divers 30 seconds away from the water’s edge but protected from the elements. Doing so may better ensure the divers are ready for action if required to act.

Remember to ask yourself these questions, if you are warm or cold as you supervise, chances are the standby divers are warmer or colder than you. Will they still be physically able to perform their tasks if required?

The Supervisor: What about you? Prior to the dive, the Supervisor should have some idea where you are going to work from during the actual dive operation. Required to be centrally located to the dive operation, the Supervisor needs to place themselves in a location where you can:

  • Monitor the dive
  • Speak to and get updates from tenders
  • Monitor and communicate with standby divers, safety officers or other team members

Like the tender, pre-planning and consideration as to where you will be throughout the dive will help you ensure you have the required personal protective equipment (PPE) at hand. Having to delay communicating with the tender or approaching the waters edge because you need to return to the truck to grab a PFD could end up being crucial to the safety and success of the mission.

Will you be using wireless topside comms? Stage topside personnel at their locations prior to the dive. Then test the portable radios to ensure communications work. This can save you a lot of stress and aggravation.

How are we getting divers out of the water?

The dive is done, now what? It is not unusual that the best place to enter the water may not be the easiest place to get out of the water. Know how someone is getting out and away from the water before they get in. Consider:

  • Site location and access
  • Where divers will end up at the end of their search pattern
  • Will it be better for divers to walk back wearing all their gear or to get out of their gear near the water and bring it back separately?

You do not want to execute a flawless dive plan only to have someone get hurt making an exit from the scene that is more complex or dangerous than it needs to be.

How are we getting an unconscious diver out of the water?

Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Even with the best plans, trouble can still happen. As supervisor you must be prepared. In a worst-case scenario where the a diver becomes unresponsive:

  • How are you going to get them up and out of the water?
  • Once the standby brings the diver back to the water’s edge, then what?

This plan needs to be thought out in advance and discussed with all team members. If not planned for, even something like a 1.2 m/ 4.0 ft sandy bank can be a major obstacle if trying to get a 90 kg/200 lb diver up to the staging area. If how to do that has not been preconceived. Answering these questions will also help determine the best place to set up the emergency first aid station so that it is close by.

It is essential that this information is known to all team members and is included in the dive briefing. An emergency during a dive operation can be a chaotic and frantic experience. Making sure everyone is on the same page will provide a good starting point for a successful rescue.

If your public safety dive team frequently responds to the same areas for calls over and over, set up some training days where you can practice recovering divers from the water to the staging area. Start with the smallest divers to work out the kinks. Then work up to removing the biggest divers you have. Dive team training is more than just being about dive skills.

What is the evacuation plan?

They are up and out, now what? This is a bad time to learn that the dive location has no cell coverage. Prior to the dive starting, ensure you have cell coverage to call for an ambulance if required. If there is none, figure out what your primary means of emergency communication is going to be in the event of an emergency. It could be it police radio, fire radio or some other method.

In the event of a drowning, it is common to have large crowds of the victim’s family and friends on site. Small areas can quickly become congested. Make sure access to the dive site for vehicles is kept clear for emergency vehicles. Tasking an on-site uniformed police officer can help with this problem.

Finally, know where you are. What is the address and/or location where you are staging from? Can you direct an emergency vehicle to your location? Write these directions down so you do not have to try to recall them from memory in an emergency.

What is the backup evacuation plan?

No help is coming. What if, during a dive operation, a major disaster happens? A busload of nuns and orphans goes over a cliff. As a result, there are no ambulances available to help you? Do you have the means to transport your own diver to the hospital?

The designated vehicle should be staged ready for departure. The keys must be someplace known to both you, the supervisor, and whoever the appointed driver is. When preparing this plan, ensure the driver knows where the nearest hospital is located and the quickest route to get there.

You should also make sure that the driver knows that, if the vehicle is not equipped with emergency lights, turning on the four-way flashers does not magically turn it into an ambulance. Regardless of the four-ways, the driver must still obey all traffic laws.

“Do I look like the kind of guy…?”

By asking yourself these previous questions ahead of time, it will help ensure you have a solid plan in place to start your operation. There is a great scene in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight when Heath Ledger’s Joker asks (read in your best Health Ledger voice) “Do I look like the kind of a guy with a plan?”

If you were to ask that very same question when it comes to you running a dive operation, you want your team to be able to answer, “Yes, yes, you do.”

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