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3 Ways PSD Teams Can Use Technology to Minimize Risk of an Out-of-Air Emergency

by Steve Smock:
Just like your family car utilizes technology that was born on the racetrack for top race car teams; available for Public Safety Dive Teams (PSD) is technology that was developed for the aerospace industry, military, scientific community and commercial diving. Depending on the mission, PSD teams routinely adopt dive techniques from all types of diving disciplines. So it only seems reasonable to adopt some of the equipment these professional divers use.

Here are three ways of many, to use technology that has its roots in other maritime industries, to increase the safety and effectiveness of your dive team when it comes to managing diver air consumption. This technology is available, appropriate and cost effective for most public safety dive teams.

1. Keep them on the surface:


Seems simple enough, kind of hard to have an out-of-air emergency if you never get in the water in the first place. So, if the operation does not warrant the immediate deployment of a diver, why not consider using SONAR? Sonar has been around since the beginning of WWI to assist in the detection of submarines. Today not only navies, but also scientists, engineers and archaeologists use sonar technology to assist them in their operations. They rely on sonar technology to provide protection, increased productivity, effectiveness and cost efficiency. These professionals would not be able to, or even consider doing a mission, research project, or construction job without this invaluable tool. Neither should the professional PSD teams.

PSD teams can achieve the same benefits as their professional counterparts by using this same technology. Using sonar to limit dive search times, consistently find targets, visually monitor divers, and provide an additional security measure equals a safer, more productive and effective dive team. With this comes the added benefit of being cost efficient, which we know is something that can repay itself in the form of additional equipment, personnel and training.


Sonar should be looked at as a piece of gear that assists the diver, not takes the place of. One of the many advantages of sonar is it doesn’t require air to work. In fact most sonar won’t work well for very long in an air environment. Without worrying about air consumption you can run sonar for hours, record, verify search coverage and document multiple targets with recordings and GPS for later reference. Technology of sonar systems has advanced to where within a couple of training sessions, the average first responder who doesn’t make it a career working in this field, can deploy and achieve a workable image of the bottom. Most manufacturers have built products and software with the average PSD team in mind. As with the race car analogy, they have taken the technology and met the requirements that it be “drivable” for the average PSD team; meaning, it is simple enough to remember the basics, quickly deployable, portable and most importantly, works. Using sonar demonstrates to the public and management a degree of sophistication and professionalism while most importantly decreasing or even eliminating the chance of an out-of-air emergency.

2. Give them unlimited air:

Okay, so now the sonar has done its job, you have possible or verified targets and it’s time to splash divers. So why not give them unlimited air? The best thing about using surface supply air is: as long as you have full scuba tanks on the surface, your diver will have air at depth. Surface supply systems for PSD teams have been around since the early 70’s. They are portable, require a minimum amount of training (ERDI has a Interspero SSA course) and are extremely reliable. The equipment is proven and professional, it is the same gear being used in the demanding commercial dive profession. In addition, surface supply systems give you a strength rated tending line, camera, reliable two-way voice communications, redundant air systems and a harness to pull a diver out in case of an emergency.


In traditional SCUBA the diver really has two jobs, monitor his equipment to ensure it continues to deliver air and perform the task he was sent in to do. Depending on the skill and experience of the diver, the job of diving his equipment can sometimes overtake the focus of what his primary job is. With surface supply, the diver is free to focus on his primary task. He has a complete support team on the surface that is helping him dive. They are monitoring his air consumption, air supply, emergency air supply and depth. The support team can tell by listening to the diver’s respiratory rate if he/she is working too hard, has anxiety, is panicking or some other medical condition. The diver can hear and speak clearly to support personnel, receive further instructions, be advised to support another diver, and provide a live video feed. Further, the helmet, combined with a dry suit, is the best protection against contaminated water and head trauma.

If the purchase of a helmet is not possible or you need additional capabilities, a surface supply set up can be used with a full face mask for just about all the same advantages including air consumption. PSD teams may also want to consider the use of a buoyancy compensator with this system. This is a debate among some in the industry but many teams have used it with great success.

Regardless of how you piece together the components of the surface supply system, with training and minimal maintenance this dive mode will offer your team one of the safest ways to conduct a public safety dive operation. There are PSD teams which have an understanding that surface supply will be used as the primary dive mode unless it is impractical or infeasible to use.

3. Give them the most efficient breathing rig:

Sometimes you have to get in and do it the old school way and just dive it. But why not dive it with new school technology. Rebreather technology has been improving since Henry Fleuss first invented a commercially acceptable rebreather in 1878. Since then manufacturers have continually developed safer rigs and training agencies have and are continually improving training programs and standards. The public safety diver can take advantage of what technical divers have known for years. With this technology the diver can have hours versus minutes of air availability. With the use of mixed gas, divers can go deeper, stay for longer periods of time and have shorter surface intervals over open circuit diving. Numerous articles are written about the pros and cons of rebreathers and types of rebreathers. You will have to decide which one, if any, is right for your team. However, one way of minimizing the cons is to look at the simplest rig to operate; a mechanical, semi-closed system. There are rigs in this category that offer up to a 10 to 1 ratio of air consumption vs. open circuit. Two of these rigs can take the place of up to 15 tanks. An example of this is: during a recent dive we had four divers and two semi-closed rigs. The first two divers did a 130-foot dive for about 30 minutes. After surfacing, the other two divers donned the rigs and dove the same profile. After surfacing, there was enough air for a third dive at the same depth and time, all using the same tank. For operating in small boats, that is quite a bit of welcomed room.


Our Team is fortunate enough to possess systems in each of these categories. I have purposely left out the names of the manufacturers. Our opinion is that we have purchased the best systems on the market, but it can be a bit like picking Chevy or Ford, Cowboys or Redskins. Anyone who has been to a dive trade show or flipped through a dive catalog knows each manufacturer believes they have a better mousetrap, and indeed they should believe that, they are selling divers equipment they depend on to keep them alive in a harsh environment. Fortunately for you and your team, you would have to look long and hard to find a piece of gear that is inherently flawed and poses a liability.

The best thing is to research the product by talking with other agencies that have the equipment, visit with the manufacturer or at least a rep, “test drive” the gear and evaluate the product with your team’s budget, mission requirements and existing equipment integration in mind. Once you decide and purchase a system, stick with that system. Train on it, know all the pros and cons, develop a relationship with the manufacturer or retailer for continued support and build your capabilities around the equipment. Mixing and matching dive components usually just creates confusion and leads to nothing more than a customized flawed system. Most critically, one that you’re responsible for and your dive team is depending on.

There are many ways and several steps in developing the safest dive plan possible for public safety divers. Asking these three questions is a good starting point:

  1. Is there an alternative to putting divers in the water?
  2. If I do put divers in, how can I give them the most amount of air?
  3. How can I maximize their air consumption?

There are of course many other ways to answer these questions than I have suggested, and other forms of technology and dive modes. Since the vast majority of dive fatalities are a result of running out of air, public safety dive teams should be aware of the benefits of technology other industries can provide to reduce this risk. Your family is much safer today driving down the road because of advances in technology, so why shouldn’t you and your team be safer because of it also?

Steve Smock
Public Safety Dive Team Supervisor