Technical Dive Rescue… Is it Really so Different?

Many of the protocols taught and practiced in the classic rescue diving courses are based on three situations and their derivations: Finding a lost dive buddy, helping a buddy in distress, and bringing an unconscious diver safely to the surface.

To some extent, the concepts and skills woven into these courses can also be applied to self-rescue, which means that a well-trained, well-practiced, certified SDI Rescue Diver is a good person to have around a dive site. But how well do these “open-water sport diving skills and techniques translate over to the TDI side of the diving equation?

In the broadest possible sense, a similar approach can be applied to technical dive teams when they experience trouble in the water. And when quick, appropriate action is needed to avoid serious injury or worse, sport-level training can be of use. However, in each of these three basic scenarios, there are some additional factors to consider before rushing in to “save the day.”


Certainly the basic search techniques for a lost buddy taught in an SDI rescue class can be employed when searching for a lost technical diver, but there are a few details that mark the search for a technical diver as different, just as a sport dive and a technical dive share some common attributes but are really very different “beasts.”

Technical dives tend to be conducted in deeper water, in overhead environments, or in harsher general conditions, such as poor visibility and colder water: sometimes all of them at once!

Deeper water means breathing gas is used up faster (for both victim and searcher) and decompression obligations grow exponentially (five minutes of extra bottom time can require ten or fifteen additional minutes of decompression time for example). This too is a consideration for would-be dive rescuer and victim.

Overhead environments present their special challenges, and both caves and wrecks require special techniques to be searched safely and productively. Both environments may have complex passages and more than one way back to the surface. The first question should always be, is the lost diver still in there?

In some cases, a lost diver may have reduced visibility to zero by disturbing silt. This can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can give potential rescuers a clear indication of where to look, but on the other, it greatly complicates the task of finding, communicating and rescuing a trapped or lost diver. Without very specific training, the right equipment and a cool head, this type of rescue can very quickly turn both divers into victims.

Cold water and tough conditions (strong currents for example) can make the simplest search many times more difficult, and rescuers in these conditions have to be careful that they save some energy for the rescue and for the swim “home.” The catch phrase: “Don’t make a victim of yourself” is never more apt than in cold, tough conditions. Once again, training, kit and experience help in these cases.


Part of the pre-dive checks that TDI suggests include a self and buddy stress assessment. This, coupled with a strong buy-in to the techdiver’s credo: “Any diver can call any dive at any time for any reason,” does seem to help to minimize the incidents of technical divers panicking at depth.  But pushing beyond the comfort zone does bring the specter of panic closer for even the most experienced diver.  The emphasis on staying within the limits of the team’s training and experience, coupled with a focus on situational awareness as a required skill for technical divers, remains the best tool for helping manage “Buddy Distress.”

Another help in preventing panic is to work hard to make sure the dive starts with the best possible chance of going smoothly, and on this front there is nothing better than all divers working from a pre-dive checklist. CCR instructors and experienced divers have been pushing this practice for a while and there is starting to be a welcome overlap into the open-circuit community. A crucial element of a checklist is a thorough inspection of each diver’s kit with emphasis on “potential failure points,” such as hoses and o-rings. Prevention is the best policy when we consider the management of equipment failure at depth… one common cause of diver panic.


This is never an easy task and it’s one that is made much more challenging when the diver is carrying the additional kit required by technical exposures. Also, with the rise in divers using SCR and CCR gear, some of the traditional protocols are out-dated and potentially dangerous for both rescuer and victim. In addition, the situation is made potentially worse when coupled with the requirement for staged decompression stops between the rescue point and the surface.

Each situation presents its own special needs, and the management of stage bottles, expanding drysuit, counter-lungs, wing, and a falling oxygen partial pressure during ascent all present a formidable challenge. The best possible advice to prepare for the very unlikely event that a diver has to bring an unresponsive diver back to the safety of shore or boat is PRACTICE. Remember in this type of situation, it’s results, not style, that wins points, AND surfacing with an unresponsive diver is easy when there is more than one rescuer!

TDI does not have a technical rescue diver program as such, because each TDI diver program contains components designed to teach risk management, rescue, and self-assessment and self-rescue. The secret to keeping these skills ready for actual use, as always, is practice. If you would like to improve your technical rescue diver skills, contact your local TDI instructor.

Take a look at TDI’s Decompression Procedures. Chapter eight has great information on problem solving procedures, including anticipating problems before they occur, entanglement, team separation, loss of gas, unconscious diver, missing boat and much more.

Contact TDI SDI and ERDI

If you would like more information, please contact:


Tel: 888.778.9073  |  207.729.4201




0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *