After the Dive: The Decontamination Process

If you dive in contaminated water, and most public safety divers will, then you must be aware of the procedures to be followed for decontamination, i.e., the cleaning of the diver and his gear following a dive.

Black Water Search and Recovery Dive Training

by Steven M. Barsky:

“They mostly come at night. Mostly…”
The character “Newt (Rebecca)” in the film Aliens, talking about the aliens that attack and make humans their hosts to grow additional aliens.

Of all the diving performed by professional and commercial divers, black water diving has to be the most challenging on a purely psychological basis. It’s not that it is particularly technically difficult, but it’s the type of diving that gives most people the creeps if you can get them in an honest discussion.

In truly black water, everything must be done by feel. It’s virtually impossible to read a gauge that is not backlit, and you may not locate the dead body you’re searching for until you literally run into it. Not a happy experience.

At our most basic level, most children experience some fear of the dark during childhood. The boogeyman under the bed and the monster hiding in the closet are issues almost every parent knows well. As adults we outgrow these worries, but most people are aware that predators (both human and four legged) hunt in the dark and this issue is one that most people push into the back of their minds. The predator you can’t see is the one that evokes the most worry, even when an attack is unlikely. Psychologists refer to fear of the dark as “nyctophobia.”

Given a choice, most divers would prefer to dive in clear water with unlimited visibility. Unfortunately, especially for the public safety diver, these types of dives are rarely, if ever, encountered. Limited visibility, for example a field of view of one to two feet, is something that most of us can cope with easily. True black water, where the visibility is zero, presents a much greater series of issues.

In a black water dive, there are many real risks that are of much greater concern than the boogeyman. The first question you should be asking, prior to any dive in black water or poor visibility, is why is the water dirty? There’s a very good chance that if the water is not clear, it’s probably polluted.

Other risks that are common during black water dives include the possibility of entanglement, cuts to the hands and body, the possibility of unknowingly swimming into some type of enclosure, and difficulty dealing with out of air emergencies. During a black water dive, all of these dangers are real and it’s possible to encounter all of them during a single dive.

Special Equipment

full face maskDiving in black water requires special equipment. Some of the items you will need include a full-face mask with communications (or a diving helmet), a tether (or umbilical), gloves, side cutters or other tool capable of cutting wire, and a knife.

The full-face mask with communications is vital because you need a way to call for help if you are entangled or have encountered some other type of difficulty. In addition, if you are diving in biologically or other minimally contaminated water, the full-face mask will help to protect your eyes, nose, and mouth from contaminants. Of course, in contaminated water you will need a dry suit and dry gloves, too.

Tethered scuba is an acceptable way to dive with scuba in black water, but it does have its limitations. The chief limitation with open circuit scuba is a finite air supply. The tether can incorporate a communications wire and this may be very desirable in places where wireless communications does not work well. In a best case scenario, the diver is wearing a helmet with an umbilical from the surface. Whatever type of specialized life support gear you use must be mastered before you venture into a black water diving scenario.

Gloves are especially important in black water, not only to protect you from the cold or pollutants, but also to protect the hands from possible cuts due to debris that may be located on the bottom. In harbors or marinas, you may encounter broken glass, barbed wire, razor sharp metal, and other similar items. A crashed small aircraft will likely be broken into numerous razor sharp pieces of metal with cables and wires waiting to snag the diver.

cuttersSide cutters or other tools that are capable of cutting wire are essential for diving in black water. You simply cannot cut wire such as fishing leader or similar materials with most diving knives.

You need a very sharp knife, sharper than most ordinary diving knives, for diving in black water. You absolutely must be able to cut your way out of any potential entanglement.

Training is Key

Training for diving in black water starts with complete familiarization with any specialized gear you select for your dive. If you cannot operate your equipment and perform all the necessary skills to handle an emergency under optimal conditions, you certainly won’t be able to perform these tasks in black water. In addition, you must test any cutting gear you have to ensure that it is sharp and that you can cut wire easily.

Black water training typically starts in a swimming pool with the diver’s mask being blacked out. You need to practice ALL of the skills you may need to be called upon to perform, including, but not limited to:

  • Ability to handle all of your equipment
  • Using a side cutter or other cutting tool to cut wire and remove entanglement from self and another diver
  • Using a knife to remove entanglement from self and another diver
  • Ability to rescue another diver, i.e, towing the diver underwater, through or around obstacles
  • Dealing with out of air emergencies
  • Conducting search patterns

All of these skills must mastered before moving on to the next step, which is practicing these skills in open water under conditions where there is some visibility. The diver playing the diver being rescue should not have his masked blacked out so he can observe the rescuer to make sure he is performing the skills correctly.

Ultimately, all divers on your team should practice these skills under true black water conditions until they have developed both comfort and proficiency. Hovering in black water is nearly an impossible skill, but when you’re diving with tethered scuba or an umbilical, this is a non-issue.

Taking photos or video of an underwater crime scene is pretty much an impossible task in black water. Many years ago, the commercial diving company, Oceaneering, developed a black water photography system, consisting of a camera with a plexiglass box filled with fresh water, through which objects could be photographed. Obviously, this system only worked well with flat objects. People have also experimented with constructing underwater “tents” out of vinyl and using alum to attempt to settle out particulate matter, but to my knowledge, none of these techniques worked particularly well.

Maintaining Proficiency

 Environments where black water may be encountered include just about any location where you might be called to dive. If you dive inside major harbors, there may be decent visibility to start your dive, but as soon as you work on the bottom you may experience zero visibility conditions.

As with all diving, the keys are to have the right equipment, maintenance for your equipment, realistic training, and plenty of practice to maintain proficiency. Failure to ensure that each of these requirements are met can lead a dive team to failure, or even the death of team members.

Steven M. Barsky is a former commercial diver, TDI instructor, diving consultant, underwater photographer and author. He retired to Utah in 2014 and spends most of his days reloading, shooting archery, target shooting, hunting and hiking in the mountains nearby.

Photo captions
All photos copyright Steven M. Barsky. All rights reserved.

Photo #1 © Barsky
There is a big difference between diving in limited visibility conditions and diving in black water.

Photo #2 © Barsky
If you’re going to dive in black water, a full-face mask with communications (or a diving helmet) is essential.

Photo #3 © Barsky
Some type of cutting tool is essential for dealing with wire that may cause entanglement.

Photo #4 © Barsky
If your dives take place inside harbors, you may frequently encounter black water.

Hypothermia: It’s All a Matter of Degrees

Full face mask diver in drysuit

Dive team members should be equipped with the right protection for cold water diving. In most circumstances, this would include a dry suit with insulating undergarments, dry gloves, a dry hood, and a full-face mask.

In the real world of public safety diving, there is no single definition of what constitutes “cold water.” Defining cold water is difficult because it depends on so many factors, i.e., the water temperature, the diver’s size, amount of subcutaneous fat, state of acclimatization to cold water, individual physiology, and activity level. What one person perceives as a comfortable water temperature may be intolerable to another.

The real issue here is at what point does exposure to cold water become debilitating? For the moment, we’re assuming we’re talking about a diver who either is wearing inadequate thermal protection, or whose thermal protection has been compromised, i.e. a flooded dry suit. There is a continuum of responses to cold water that runs the gamut from mild discomfort all the way to unconsciousness and death. As far as I am concerned, the line is drawn at “debilitating effects” because once the diver cannot perform at the peak of his ability, the risks in diving increase to unacceptable levels.

Debilitating effects range from loss of concentration to shivering and the inability to use one’s hands properly. Any of these situations puts the diver at elevated risk and indicate that the diver is not wearing adequate thermal protection for the task at hand. If you notice these signs in yourself or another diver, it’s time to terminate the dive and regroup.

When divers discuss diving in cold water, the term “hypothermia” frequently comes up. Although we all think we know what we mean when we discuss the issue of hypothermia, the reality is that physiologists have a very different perspective on hypothermia than most divers. For a physiologist, hypothermia is defined as a body core temperature below 95 degrees F. Above this temperature, while you might be uncomfortably cold, by definition, you are not hypothermic.

Dr. Neal Pollock, Ph.D., Research Director for Divers Alert Network (DAN), points out that, “The threshold core temperature for hypothermia is 35C (95F), a substantial drop. It is unlikely that a diver with even modest protective garments will reach that point. There is a big gulf between being cold and being hypothermic. Shivering (episodic or continuous) and general impairment will develop long before the definition of hypothermia is met. I think that the focus on the structure of hypothermia stages (mild, moderate and severe) is unhelpful, confusing cold impairment with hypothermia. You do not need both for serious problems to develop.”

Dr. Pollock knows that of which he speaks, and has experienced a flooded dry suit during a polar dive on a 43 minute excursion in 29 degree F seawater. Since he was wearing Thinsulate® under his dry suit during the dive, he was able to continue the dive, which was being conducted to measure his core temperature (don’t try this at home!). The only reason he continued the dive was that it was being conducted for the express purpose of measuring core temperature, otherwise this type of occurrence would normally call for the dive to be aborted. Interestingly enough, the largest drop in Dr. Pollock’s core temperature took place after he exited the water.

True hypothermia is a very serious condition and can lead to unconsciousness, cardiac arrhythmias (irregular beat), and death. Clearly, these are scenarios that you don’t want to occur underwater.

As mentioned earlier, you don’t have to be hypothermic to place yourself at risk in cold water. A dry suit (with insulating undergarments) alone is not adequate thermal protection in cold water. Proper protection of the head and hands is equally important, and dry hoods, full-face masks, and dry gloves are vital, especially for diving under the ice. One issue that may occur with dry gloves and dry hoods are that if they are compromised, their insulation value will be lost. Keep in mind that every piece of equipment has its own advantages and disadvantages.

The language you use as a public safety diver is important, since your actions may be scrutinized and challenged in a court of law. In most cases, you will not be able to properly diagnose a dive team member as hypothermic, unless you are using some very sophisticated equipment. In any situation where you must describe a diver’s inability to perform in cold water, it’s best to say that he suffered from “cold stress.” Leave the medical diagnosis to the physiologists and physicians.

About the author:
Steven M. Barsky is a professional diver, diving consultant and author. He has written 18 diving texts and and produced 9 diving DVDs. His latest DVD video, Careers in Diving, was released in December 2013.

Underwater communications are essential to good teamwork

By Steven M. Barsky


photo by Steven Barsky. Surface-supplied diving gear is a good way to go when diving in polluted water. All communications with surface-supplied gear are normally hard-wire. Here, FBI Dive Team members train in body recovery in San Pedro, California.

If there is one thing that is essential to working effectively underwater, it’s teamwork. And, to work as a cohesive unit, everyone in your team must effectively communicate, both topside and underwater. While you can get by with hand signals for ordinary recreational diving, for any type of professional diving, verbal communications are vital to teamwork. The proper use of communications technology, and the content of what you say and how you say it, are distinguishing characteristics that separate the amateur public safety dive teams from the professionals. We could write a book on this topic, but we’ll attempt to summarize some of the most important points here.

Hardware Choices

The two types of electronic communications for diving are wireless and hard wire systems.  If you are using conventional scuba gear, you can use wireless with a tether or a tether that has integrated communications wiring. Even if you use wireless communications, the use of a tether is essential for safety reasons. Without a tether, it can be impossible for your teammates to find you should you become unconscious and stop breathing while you are underwater.

Divers using surface-supplied gear will, of course, have a communications wire built into their umbilical. Using surface-supplied gear with a diving helmet rather than a full-face mask will give you the best communications and provide the highest degree of safety. Surface-supplied gear is always preferred for diving in polluted water whenever contaminants can have long-term negative health effects, or cause serious injury or death.

What You Say and How You Say It

To have good communications on a dive team requires a leader who sets an example by communicating effectively and encourages team members to speak up when they have a concern. In my experience in dealing with commercial, scientific, and public safety divers I’ve always observed that most people are hesitant to speak up about safety issues until another individual voices a concern. Following the identification of a safety issue, other team members will frequently thank the individual who spoke up for identifying a problem that they noticed but were afraid to call to anyone’s attention. On the best dive teams, this should not happen.

How you say things is also very important. If you’re a team leader, you can make or break the people on your team through careless remarks, especially thoughtless criticism. A team leader needs to be firm, but fair and consistent. Encourage your people and work to bring out the best in each diver.

Procedures are Important

Following good protocols is essential for good communications with divers who are working underwater. Probably the single most important skill for the dive supervisor, or whoever is running the dive, is to develop good listening skills. Learn to listen to what the diver is saying, how he says it, and his breathing. By following this procedure you will have more and better insights into what the diver is doing and how he is coping with the stress of the dive.

More importantly, as the dive supervisor running the topside communications, avoid the temptation to enter into idle chatter with the diver. Keep your side of the conversation brief. Avoid talking over the diver. This is especially important if you are using a two-wire communication system where topside over-rides the diver’s speech. Listen more than you talk. Keep your communications short, i.e., 15-20 seconds, and wait for the diver to respond. Never drone on and on for any extended period of time.

As a diver, it’s important to let topside know where you are at all times as well as to keep them informed as to what you’re doing. Always be honest about what actions you are taking and what progress you have made on the job at hand.

Both the diver and topside need to be explicit as possible when giving or responding to directions. As a diver, if you want the tender to take up the slack in your tether or umbilical, tell them how much slack you want them to take up as well as how fast you want them to take it up. As a supervisor running a dive, you must be sure to keep track of the diver’s bottom time and ensure that they get off the bottom with a margin of safety. If your policy is to not run decompression dives, then allow enough time for the diver to get clear of the bottom and make his safety stop without running up against the no-decompression limits.

Bottom Line

You can have the best wireless communication or hard-wire system, but if you don’t use it properly, you’re wasting a valuable asset. Safety must always come first for the public safety diver and communications are a vital component of safety.

About the author

Steven M. Barsky is the author of the book, Diving in High-Risk Environments. He has worked extensively with public safety dive teams, and has experience in sport, scientific, and commercial diving. For more information, contact Steve through his website at

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