Rescue in Different Gear Configurations

by Lauren Kieren:

“Most people seem to think of the brain as an incredibly complex machine that can do amazing things, but, at least when it comes to processing visual information, your brain is actually quite lazy, filling in what you are seeing with generic information it figures is probably there.” – Matt Moore

Don’t take offense; I am not using this quote to call you lazy… just your brain.  In all fairness my brain is lazy as well and proved this when I needed it most during an emergency.

One afternoon I was out on a boat getting ready to teach a Wreck Diver course.   We were moored on a shallow site consisting of three wrecks about 50 yards from each other in a triangle formation.  This allowed divers to easily visit three wrecks on a single dive and check out some coral and rubble between them. 

Before I entered the water, a separate group of certified divers surface-swam out to the farthest wreck to make their descent.  Meanwhile, I was on the boat reviewing  some of the skills I was about to do on the dive with my student.  Moments after the group of divers descended we heard splashing and screaming, “Help! Help!”  The captain yelled to the diver, “Inflate your BC!” and the diver continued to splash, scream, and never inflated their BC.

Immediately, I grabbed a life ring and donned my mask and fins before entering the water to swim out to the diver.  Upon reaching the diver, I went to inflate his BC. 

There was no corrugated inflator hose, no inflator, and I found myself in shock.  How can this be?  Did it fall off?  Where is his inflator?  I handed the diver the life ring and he composed himself, holding on to the floatation device for dear life, as I floated there dumbfounded. 

Before we get into the rest of this story, I would like to ask if we could take a step back and watch a short video.  I promise, it ties into the story and is important to understand how I ended up puzzled moments after this rescue.

Do I still have your attention?  Good! 

Think back to me floating there dumbfounded, as the panicked diver held on to the life ring.  What happened?  Why couldn’t I inflate his BC? Why couldn’t he inflate his BC?  Where were his buddies?

As it turned out, the diver recently bought a new BC that had a feature I knew about but I was not familiar with using.  This BC system did not have a corrugated inflator hose over the shoulder but rather a one-touch control lever on the diver’s side to inflate and deflate the BC’s air cell.  As for his buddies, they did not even consider he was missing and assumed he simply went a different direction until they surfaced after their dive.

Remember from the video, “Knowledge does not always equal understanding.” 

In the heat of the moment, as the diver was moments away from sinking, the last thing he considered while he was splashing at the surface trying to stay afloat was pushing the lever on his side or orally inflating his BC with the small inflation tube tucked in his sleeve on the shoulder.  In all fairness, this was the last thing my mind considered when I came to his rescue.

Let’s think about this for a moment, a slightly  different BC completely destroyed our brain’s problem-solving ability in the midst of an emergency.  The diver knew the change in his equipment, but when task loaded and stressed, his brain could not make the connection and understand what to do next.  I had seen this type of BC before, but when task loaded, I did not consider the lever on his side either.

As for the buddies, they knew their buddy was not with them, but it never even occurred to them that he was having a real emergency.  It was a shallow dive that everyone had done many times before, so they thought, “What could possibly go wrong?”

Is it possible to adjust our brain to correct this in the future?  Of course, but just like riding a backwards bicycle, it takes constant and deliberate practice. 

There was only one change in the gear configuration mentioned above.  Consider the vast differences in common equipment you see at dive sites today… single tank back mount, sidemount, back-mounted doubles, rebreathers, and more. 

If you were not intimately familiar with one or all of these configurations would you feel comfortable assisting a diver wearing them?  Sure, a lot of us probably think we could, but in many situations our brains take shortcuts that can hide the obvious and most simple solution when we are not expecting it. In these moments, our brains take over and fill in information that it assumes is accurate or present.

Next time you refresh your rescue diver skills, consider adding dissimilar configurations into the mix to hone in on the differences and necessary things to consider before rendering assistance to a diver in need.  Also, be very careful about how you interpret things because you are looking at the world with a bias, whether you think you are or not.

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5 replies
  1. Skip Smith
    Skip Smith says:

    As a Paramedic. I have to commend you on your life saving skills… you did exactly what your supposed to do… you realized someone was in trouble and you did something about it… you also took the necessary steps to make it work. When there is a piece of equipment involved the probability of it failing is high. You took a device that worked every time and was familiar to all. As divers we need to be aware of different types of equipment and what our partner is wearing especially. The fail safe to all of this is to be aware of equipment that does not fail. With all of the manufacturers out there each trying to find the right combination of innovation and reliability variability is high. Safety equipment is simple, consistent and always available. While not the sexiest safety equipment saves lives. What we dive with is what we learn and use on a daily basis. To take this to the next step… underwater and sadly this dates me is the ability buddy breathe. while not the newest and certainly not the skill taught today it is the one that saved many divers lives. Learning how to use the simplest equipment consistently from diver to diver allows us to try out the exotic and exciting equipment to learn it in a way that makes lives safer underwater. I will probably catch hell for all of this…but I want my buddy to know the skills that work just like you did and make sure I come home. all of the sexy toys that we play with are useless if we don’t have simple systems that save lives.

  2. Eric Brooks
    Eric Brooks says:

    Lauren, great article! I just passed it on to our PSD team, we recently had a conversation about diving the same equipment configurations; this is a good reason why we should do that. Keep up the great work.

  3. ben
    ben says:

    Interesting – in the CMAS club I train in we’re taught to include discussions of the gear we’re using in the buddy check, also quickly check out other’s gears visually and enquire about anything which doesn’t seem familiar we might see.

    People using less conventional gear are also encouraged to mention it before the dive. One example, my wife’s DSMB is yellow, which is an emergency signal in certain places / for certain people, and she was told to mention this before the dive to avoid confusion.


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