Over the past year or so, I have been on a mission to figure out what the health risks are to public safety divers, what is causing injuries, why they are dying, and what ERDI can do to help prevent these accidents from happening.
Teaching or assisting divers with disabilities requires an alternative view and approach but in the end is extremely rewarding.
Recently, there has been a large increase in the number of accidents involving dive boats backing down on or running over divers. This of course is not limited to the US; these cases span the globe.
Some of the differences between technical and sport, if applied by sport divers, would actually make sport divers better divers.
by Sean Harrison:
As I look back on the days when I first started tech diving, two things come to mind that have had significant changes – equipment and logistics. There have been such dramatic changes in equipment it is hard to highlight them all. The early tech equipment was nothing more than standard equipment that was reconfigured to meet our needs, it was not specialized, light weight, easier breathing at deeper depths or made of special metals. And we certainly did not have rebreathers, those did not come ‘til the late 90’s. Logistics, on the other hand, has gotten better but can still be a little tricky. My tech diving started in the mid-Atlantic states of the US where there were several boats that would take us to deeper wrecks and allow us to stay a little longer in the water. We also had a hard time getting the gas fills we needed for the planned dives. Things have gotten better in this aspect but here is a list of things to be aware of if you are considering getting involved in tech diving or have recently learned to tech dive.
1. Boats – not all boats are created equal. Dive boat operators as a general rule rely on the number of divers they take out per day, pretty simply math – the more divers they take out, the more money they make. When boat operators take out tech divers they will usually reduce the number of divers on their boat (space for additional equipment) and stay out a little longer to allow for decompression or rebreather divers – this means you may pay a little more to do tech dives off of boats. This also means you need to speak with the boat operator and make sure you can do the dives you want to do off their boats. Mixing tech divers with sport divers normally does not produce good results.
2. I have to go! – tech dives are not always deep but they are almost always longer than your average sport dive. Longer dives means better exposure protection (even in warmer water) read: dry suit, which means no peeing in the water, or does it. TDI recently released two good articles on this:
The short version of these articles is, it is important to stay hydrated while diving and with hydration comes nature’s call. Lots of options to manage this situation so do your research before your next long dive.
3. I’m hungry – anybody that knows me knows I love my food and after a few hours in the water, I surface ready to eat! Diving burns calories and the colder the water the more calories burned. Tech diving from boats in many places also means longer boat rides, so getting back to the dock is not going to happen as fast as it does on sport dive boats. Bring along some good snacks or a sandwich to get you back to the dock. If you have a good snack on the boat ride back, you will be able to get started on the monster nap sooner.
4. Bring on the gadgets – not so fast. Tech divers are certainly gear geeks but they also tend to be minimalists and only bring what they need. A big part of what allows us to tech dive and stay underwater longer is minimizing air consumption; carrying more gadgets means not being as streamlined and increases air consumption. As you select gear, think about what kind of diving you will be doing, cave divers don’t need what wreck divers do and cold water wreck divers don’t need what warm water ocean wreck divers do. Also think about where it is going to go on your body or configuration. Too many things stacked on top of each other means you may not be able to access it when you need it.
If you are a planner or someone that likes to work through scenarios, technical diving is right up your alley. Plan out your dives, call the boat operators or local stores (if you can do the dives from shore) and find out what sort of support they can provide. If you will be diving from a boat, make sure you are clear with the operator what kind of dive you want to do and see if they will do it. Planning ahead is critical when it comes to rebreathers and traveling, not all locations support all rebreathers. Make an equipment check list and go through it before every dive/trip, with tech diving comes more equipment which equals more things to forget. Make sure that check also includes a save-a-dive kit, and that the spare parts now include the ones you need for tech diving. Plan ahead and have fun. A spontaneous tech dive can result in a spontaneous disaster. If you have not yet taken a tech diving course, consider signing up for the TDI Intro to Tech Course. This course will give a great overview of what to expect and what you will need.
by Sean Harrison:
The “What’s Your Life Worth?” series is not intended to scare people; it is intended to provoke thought and some introspective viewing as well as self analysis. The intended end goal is to increase safety and reduce the likelihood of an accident. Keep this in mind as you read the series because while specifics could be pointed out (there is an unlimited number of examples unfortunately) the illustrations are written in a broad swipe and I have been careful not to write them in such a way as to combine accidents as if they were one occurrence. In this piece I am going to get back to the very beginning of the decision making process, the first step, if you will. What are you willing to pay for a course?
Course costs and what is included in those costs run the gamut, but one element that does not is what it takes to make a proficient and competent diver at any given level. To create a proficient diver at any level four key areas have to be covered: the basics of learning which involve knowledge development, applied skills, repetition, and muscle memory. Sounds easy right? Well it is, but it does not happen fast.
Everybody learns at a different pace and in different ways, meaning: time is required for the instructor to figure how the student learns and to ensure short term and long term comprehension. Unlike some learning events, scuba diving also requires skill performances which add another layer to the learning process – muscle memory. Muscle memory is so critical to diving that it should be considered life threatening if it is not achieved. Here is a basic example of what I mean by life threatening. If a diver has not practiced releasing their weight system to a point where it becomes instinctive in an emergency situation, they could drown because they cannot stay on the surface or even get to the surface. Why do I use this as an example? Because it happens time and time again, divers are found lifeless on the bottom with their weight system still in place.
Like muscle memory, knowledge retention is needed in emergency situations as well. It may not seem important when you are learning but when you need the information to make a split second decision, that’s not the time to realize “I don’t remember my instructor teaching me what to do in this situation”. Chances are good your instructor taught it or that it was covered in the materials for the course but… was enough time spent on it?
So you may be asking yourself, what does all this have to do with the cost of a course? You have heard the old saying “time is money”, well the longer it takes to achieve and ensure academic understanding and muscle memory, the more money it will cost. See, unlike many other activities you will do in your life, scuba is based on physics and physiology, two things you can never escape or defy. A few other activities also come to mind: sky diving, high altitude climbing, and rock climbing. Here is the thing with physics and physiology, you don’t need to have a complete and comprehensive understanding of them but you do need to understand the basics because every time you get into the water you enter a new realm unlike the one our bodies are adjusted to on land.
Moral of the story, don’t look for the cheapest class, it could cost you dearly later on, look for the course that is going to give you everything you need to be a competent diver at whatever level you are working towards and that includes if you are just taking your basic Open Water Diver course. Talk to the dive center or instructor and ask them: how much time do I get in the pool? How much classroom time do I get? If the answer that comes back is, “We do as little classroom and pool time as possible to keep the cost down”, find another dive center or instructor. Find the place that tells you exactly what is included in the course and gives you the response, “As much time as you need to feel comfortable”.
Diving is an amazing sport that takes you to places that some people only dream about and you get to see things that few people have seen, but it is not without its risks and that’s what makes it exciting. Do yourself and your loved ones a favor – take a quality course which comes with a slightly higher price tag. Keep in mind though that higher price tags don’t always mean quality so make sure you communicate to the dive center or instructor exactly how you feel. If you are not comfortable or feel you are not getting the training you need… let someone know.
by Sean Harrison:
In a previous life when I did not have as much at stake, an opinion that did not make my parents very happy, I road motorcycles… any kind of motorcycle. After a number of years of riding used motorcycles, I decided it was time to buy my very own, brand new, road bike. While picking out my bike and looking at all the other goodies that could go along with it (can’t have a brand new bike and a bunch of old accessories) I looked at the helmet display. Up until this point I thought a helmet was good for keeping the big bugs and rain drops from hitting my face, just hearing the splat on my face-shield was proof enough they would hurt. Near the display I saw a sign which had a very powerful message from a company named Shoei and it read, “If you have a five dollar head, wear a five dollar helmet”. Now, even in my early 20’s, that message struck home. In pretty much every course I have taught in the past 20 plus years, I have found a way to use this line. Not very hard really, helmets are a safety device; dive gear is life support… close enough. The point is, when it comes to your life or the life of a loved one, don’t take the cheap route.
For the past 15 years a big part, and not the best part, of my job has been reviewing and analyzing diving accidents and fatalities. These reports span the globe, and cover all ages, genders, and disciplines of diving. Two unfortunate themes are reoccurring: basic skill failure and cutting corners on servicing.
Basic skill failure transcends all levels of diving from the basic open water diver to the best trained diving professional. This is a problem that boggles my mind because there is an unlimited amount of resources out there to prevent this from happening. A term was recently coined “Normalization of Deviance” and it is very fitting for what I have seen in diving. In short, and this is a very abridged interpretation, there is a correct way of doing something, but if you deviate from that correct way and nothing goes wrong, you find yourself continually deviating. This, in time, is going to catch up with you. Basic skills should be practiced on every dive, and at bare minimum a refresher should be conducted every year for divers not diving regularly. You may be asking – what kind of basic skills are you talking about? I am referring to: turning on a cylinder, removing a weight system, monitoring your gauges. Sound basic? They are, and taught in every open water course, but have seriously injured many and claimed the lives of even more.
Going cheap on servicing is another one that gets me. Most equipment can be serviced for less than $200 per year; the more sophisticated the equipment, the higher the cost. This is of particular interest when it comes to rebreathers. I have at this point, lost count of the number of accidents that have involved out of date cells, and scrubber canisters with expended scrubber materials. I am grouping scrubber medium in with servicing since it is an expendable item that needs to be “serviced”. O2 cells can be, and must be (by most manufacturers) replaced every year, for around $300.00.
So what are we talking about here? Depending on what type of equipment you are diving and how actively you are diving, $200 – $700 per year. Is your life worth less than that? I don’t think so and neither do your loved ones. The really sad part here is that you won’t realize the cost and the value until it’s too late. No, diving is not an inexpensive sport but it pays itself back many-fold by the places you go, the people you meet, and things you get to see that few others have or will. Just the therapeutic value alone is worth thousands!
by Sean Harrison:
So you sat all winter, and for some of you it has been a rough winter, looking at your diving photographs, reading the dive magazines, and posting on social media all your diving dreams and fun stories, just waiting for the water to warm up. Why wait?! You can’t make the water warm up any faster! I know you can travel to warm water, but you can be warmer in the water no matter what temperature it is now. How you ask? A dry suit.
Dry suits have come a long way over the years and so have the undergarments. Perhaps one of the biggest advancements is that dry suits are more flexible than they have ever been. In years past, dry suits were primarily designed to be used in cold water only, which is not the case with current dry suit designs. Some manufactures have designed dry suits just for tropical water temperatures while others have taken a different approach and made a suit that can be used in any water temperature just by adjusting the undergarments (more on undergarments later).
Being “cold” doesn’t just happen in “cold water”, divers often get cold in very warm water. While there are many theories and questions out there about what cold water is, it’s all relative – what is cold to one person may not be cold to another. Any time you submerge yourself in water temperatures colder than your core temperature (36.5 -37.5 C / 97.7 – 99.5 F) your body releases heat through the skin. You also lose heat through your lungs as the cold compressed air is breathed in and then exhaled. This can make a diver very cold after multiple dives per day, over multiple days. While there needs to be a temperature difference between your core temperature (warmer) and the surrounding temperature (cooler) for your body to lose heat, the difference does not need to be very much. It does need to be enough so you won’t overheat but not so much that you become hypothermic.
Taking a dry suit course will not only make diving in tropical waters more comfortable, it will also extend your diving season. Think of all your dive buddies, sitting there, waiting for the season to begin as you are posting pictures and stories of the dives you are already enjoying. Then, at the end of their season, you are still diving! This is simply accomplished by adjusting the undergarments you use.
Undergarments, like dry suits, have come a long way. Going back to those early days again, the early undergarments were bulky and did not wick moisture away from your body. They also had big zippers and seams that would, over the course of a dive, irritate your skin. Divers during these times would use cotton and wool garments to stay warm. We now know that cotton keeps the moisture too close to the skin and causes you to be cold. Wool, while maintaining your warmth even when wet, cannot be worn by many divers and is not the best option. Today’s undergarments are made with materials that wick the moisture away from your body, are less bulky, can be adjusted to water temperature, and some of the recent ones are non-compressible and neutrally buoyant.
So if you are looking for a course that will make you more comfortable in the water, and extend your diving season, consider the SDI Dry Suit course. Be that diver that everybody is jealous of because you get to dive more.
by Ron Dorneker and Sean Harrison:
Interview with Deputy District Chief for Chicago Fire Department, Ron Dorneker
ERDI – Chief Dorneker, first off, thank you for taking the time to sit down with Emergency Response Diving International (ERDI) and discuss what we think is a very important topic. There are varying opinions on whether divers should be tethered or not but for the purposes of this article we are going to discuss it from the point of view that all divers are tethered.
Before we get into the time tested tips you have to offer, let’s give the readers a little background on you, and your team, so they have a better understanding of the size and typical number of responses and environments your team dives in.
Chief Dorneker – I have been in charge of the Chicago Fire Department Marine & Dive Operations since 2001. There are approximately 140 Chicago Fire Department personnel currently working as Public Safety Divers. This includes divers assigned on our Helicopters, FastBoat 688, SCUBA Team 687 and Squad Companies 1, 2, 5 and 7. These divers act as first responders to immediate life threats due to drowning anywhere within the open waters of Lake Michigan, Lake Calumet, Wolf Lake, the Chicago River, the Calumet River, the Shipping and Sanitary Canal as well as lagoons and ponds around the city. A mutual aid is also given to surrounding inland lakes and the Lake Michigan waterfront of surrounding suburbs. Diving conditions can include black water, polluted waters, extreme cold and ice conditions, and during severe weather and night time operations.
Last year the Chicago Fire Department responded to 249 water rescue incidents. Those incidents included drowning, persons having general trouble in the water, persons missing in the water, jumpers from bridges, persons in or on the ice, vehicles in the water, boat sinkings, boat fires, stranded boat, boat accidents, animals in the water or in/on the ice, victim recovery operations, roadway floods, and rescues of people from their homes during residential flooding.
Also last year, the Chicago Fire Department Divers logged over 3200 hours of training for those types of incidents.
ERDI – Thank you for that very insightful behind the scenes view of your team. Very impressive! Let’s get to the topic at hand and see if we can break this down into critical components. Having watched you work with your team over the years, I know you keep a pretty close eye on things and constantly analyze if operations are working or how they could work better. Staying on the cutting edge of safety. What is the first thing your teams does when it comes to tethering?
Chief Dorneker – Our divers wear a chest harness over their dry suits and under the BCD. The attachment point on the harness is a D-Ring located at the center of the chest. We fasten a carabineer to our tether lines and attach that to the D-Ring. Once the diver is connected to that tether line, the tender must hold that line in his hand until the diver is dressed down and the line is disconnected.
ERDI – What kind of checks or inspections does your team perform?
Chief Dorneker – Tether lines are inspected each day by the oncoming team of divers as part of their daily inventory. The team also inspects the lines before each dive, and again after the dive when being put back in service. This inspection is overseen by the Dive Supervisor.
Harnesses are inspected by the individual diver each day before being put in service. The harness is checked again during a tender check of the diver before we begin the dive. This inspection is also overseen by the Dive Supervisor.
ERDI – What is the reasoning behind tethering your divers?
Chief Dorneker – We tether our divers for two reasons, safety and search effectiveness.
As far as safety goes, Chicago Fire Department divers are always tethered and use full face mask communications during all dive operations. This allows the team to know the exact location of the diver in the water. During any diver distress, our contingency training and plan uses that tether line as a means to descend directly to the distressed diver. Descending on that line saves time. Time is always our enemy when it comes to water rescue operations.
With regard to effectiveness, after identifying the last seen point and determining the area to search, we direct our diver to search an exact area. We call that area “the box.” The tender uses landmarks to keep the diver in the box and conduct a thorough search. We know how long each leg of the search will be, and how many legs of the search the diver will swim to search the entire box. Having the diver on a tether and being tender-directed allows us to factor in visibility to maximize our efforts. We know from the diver what the visibility is during the search. This allows the tender to modify the patterns so the diver does not have to swim to the edge of the box. The tender can stop the diver short on each leg of the box based on visibility. This saves time, has the diver swimming less distance and results in a quicker search of the area.
ERDI – Any other thoughts on tethered divers?
Chief Dorneker – Solo divers being tendered, directed during search and rescue operations, require training on both the part of the diver and tender. It is not easy for someone not used to diving with tether lines to master that skill. It is also not easy to communicate simple thoughts from a tender to a diver. Standardized patterns and standardized communications helped our team achieve success with solo divers being tendered, directed to locate victims and also helped keep our team safer.
by Sean Harrison:
ERDI was invited, along with several other industry professionals, to attend a workshop that focused on the health and well being of public safety divers and their support teams. The workshop was hosted by UC San Diego Health Sciences, Center of Excellence in Diving; and sponsored by: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, OxyHeal Health Group, Divers Alert Network (DAN), ScubaPro, and Diving Unlimited International (DUI). Just by looking over the host and the list of sponsors, you can tell that this was not your average workshop.
The stated goal was, “To create knowledge and competencies in recreational, scientific, commercial, military and public safety through diving research, education, and ocean conservation.” One might wonder how do all these very different sectors of diving relate? Well, there is one common denominator… the water. From the brand new open water diver to the best trained combat diver, every one of us is subjected to the same environmental factors, we may have different reasons for being in that environment but nevertheless, we are being exposed to the same things.
ERDI began its quest to educate the public safety diver of the hazards, concerns, potential exposures and mitigation strategies to protect against these contaminates in 2010 by publishing the Contaminated Water Diving Operations manual. ERDI welcomed the invitation to contribute to the health of the divers and to the environment.
A lot of topics and ground were covered during this workshop. There were some reoccurring topics that need to be addressed and some new ones. With the wide range of experience that was in the room, there was a flurry of conversation and some very sensitive topics exposed. The end goal was always the safety and well being of the divers, no matter what the reason was the diver was in the water.
Since this was the first meeting, everyone involved was sent home with one goal… go on a fact-finding mission, and learn what the divers in our respective communities are feeling. For the public safety diver this could mean some self reflection – how did I feel before and after that dive, how did I feel two days after that dive?
Every new venture takes a while to mature and public safety diving is no different. While divers have been going in the water for many years to recover objects and bodies, public safety diving is really only now coming to the forefront and gaining enough attention as a service that is desperately needed by the community it serves. The end result is: with enough awareness and research data, teams that need funding to obtain necessary training and equipment, will have the documentation they need to support their requests. For the teams that are already well funded, they will benefit by continuing to do their job with the most current equipment and training and… maybe even an “I told you so.”
ERDI will continue to assist with this important mission in any way we can. We will also keep you up-to-date on any progress that is made. For more information or to see how you can be involved visit the UC San Diego Health Sciences website or keep checking back to ERDI News for updates.