What’s The Right Thing to Say? Misunderstanding Scuba Talk

by Thomas Powell

The modern world is one in which a single word can change the outcome of almost any event, action, meaning, or understanding. Even the way a single word is used may alter the meaning of that word. Within the dive community, we are no different. For example, I may go dive today (scuba), or I may dive into the pool for a swim, or I may decide to practice my dive plan for an upcoming competition (freediving). In each of these cases, the same word has different meaning and associates with a very different activity or sport. The problem with terminology differences is that sometimes a lack of understanding or clarification can lead to major problems.


There is one word out there that is truly problematic. That single word is “rescue.” What does the word rescue imply? From childhood, we are often taught that this word refers to the act of saving someone else in some manner. We hear it on cartoons, television dramas, even the local news. Conversely, in the dive community, rescue is a core term. Is it not one of the central programs along the recreational pathway for scuba dives who are continuing to learn? Pretty much every agency that teaches recreational scuba diving has some version of a “rescue” course right?

At some point in your dive career, have you been standing around discussing classes, training, or future desires and had to explain that rescue does not mean leaping out of a helicopter in slow motion to save the day for some helpless victim? I know I’ve had to have this conversation in every facet of my dive career. When someone is not working in your field, playing in your field, or educated on the core knowledge base you use every day, how do you expect them to know the “lingo?”

What are some places where a person may not understand the proper meaning of the word rescue when referring to a course? One example may be an educational program. So imagine you are participating in a traditional educational program….they do have them for diving these days. If your counselor works in a registrar’s office and has never taken a dive course, he or she may not understand what a rescue course actually involves. In truth, even the course write-up may describe the program as teaching “self and buddy rescue.” This may not help provide clarity for the subject matter without further explanation.

Is there a second location where this one term could cause a problem? Could an issue arise within a public safety department? Imagine you are a chief and you have to decide to begin developing an elite public safety dive team. A local professional sits before you and is regaling you with his background. The term “rescue” really fits the bill when you are hoping to save people in harm’s way….. right? If you have never been a diver and do not fully understand the training process, someone could mislead you for the sake of making profits… right? I am well aware that people must be responsible for obtaining proper and well-rounded knowledge, especially as public safety leaders, but bad things still do happen. In reality, many public safety teams even call themselves “Dive Rescue” groups or some variation of that phrasing. They will all tell you that rescues are very rare outside of major natural disasters. Most teams simply perform recovery operations. Is rescue still a good term to use? In that case, my personal opinion is that “rescue” is a good term because it implies hope, not for victims or families but for the men and women performing a largely thankless job.

Experiences and Other “Terms”

Let me tell you a few of my personal experiences with this unique word so that you as a diver and reader can better watch for potential problems in your future. These experiences will also show how one problematic word can lead to other terms that can be misused or misunderstood. First, my coworkers and I teach an extensive and well-rounded vocational program with the objective of helping a person establish themselves as “employable.” Each time we take on a new student, we know it will be a long educational process during which the new diver will experience growth and personal trials. To be “employable,” a person must become a professional scuba educator. How often have you heard negative remarks about what our industry likes to call “zero to hero” programs? Is a person employable if they have been diving for six months and then, during the seventh month, he or she becomes a dive instructor? Would you trust this person with your family as an educator? Perhaps you would in some cases but I doubt you would in every one.

When I try to explain that an “employable” dive professional must have experience, knowledge, and the ability to teach within many areas of diving, the first hiccup I always experience is with the word “rescue.” If a person wants to teach public safety diving, many counselors or program directors often believe that rescue diving is public safety diving. Sometimes, no level of explanation, written description, or visual presentation can change this mindset and allow an understanding of the differences.

Second, to remain competitive, agencies do allow professionals to earn an instructor title and capability following only the core educational pathway. Knowing this, do you hire the person who only followed this pathway or the person with experience as a technical diver, public safety diver, and recreational diver who has worked alongside other professionals teaching and learning new things that fall outside the basic standards? Essentially this person would have knowledge beyond the bare-bones minimum standard. The person educated in the “zero to hero” fashion is often used to crew vessels, co-teach, or they are simply beginning a pathway that will allow small amounts of extended knowledge to be gained here and there. In truth, I have seen other vocational programs that will not allow their own “zero to hero” students to crew the organization’s own boats after completing an educational program. Is that creating a trustworthy and employable diver?

One last experience I have had in recent years came in the form of reviewing a fatality. This scenario involved a public safety diver who passed away during an operation. Later in review, I discovered that this diver and his co-workers were trained as “rescue” divers as well as some other “awareness” level educational programs. In the fire community, “awareness-level” education often means you have been presented with the academics associated with a subject. You essentially understand the topic but have not performed practical exercises. Do you want someone with this level of education to be responsible for saving the lives of your loved ones? In this case, I feel that somewhere along the way team leadership was never correct on a problematic understanding of terminology. Perhaps the professional knew he or she could not train to the level that was needed by the team, but also feared losing profit. If this was the case, was it ethical? We all know the answer to that question.

What to do?

No matter what, you need to remember that a proper understanding of terminology must be established. Stick to your guns and help people understand. We have discussed a few very basic words and terms. These items were “rescue, employable, zero-to-hero, and awareness.” There are many other terms that can be misused, misrepresented, or misunderstood beyond these, but you also likely understand the issue at hand. Always do your best to improve our industry. If you recognize a problem and cannot correct the issue, call someone for help. Call the headquarters group and ask them for support or insight. Bring in the person who can communicate in the manner needed. Never allow someone to let poor communication become misleading. Issues like this could lead to a fatality or injury! Remember that even differing terms such as “Master Scuba Diver” and “Divemaster” can become twisted and confusing to someone who does not work within the dive industry on a regular basis. Even basic differences between similar agency titles can cause confusion. Always be clear with your students and their affiliates. Wording is a problem that can be overcome, so watch for possible issues and remember that dive professionals are educators above all else.

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