What Gives You the best Chance of Survival in an Emergency?

by Chris Richardson:

When I was asked to draw on my 20+ years as a technical diving instructor to write a short article on what gives you the best chance of survival in an emergency, my first thought was “avoid them” followed by “how do I stretch that out to 1000 words?” I decided that I would give it some thought and I have, right up to the deadline as this article is due in about an hour. I hope that gives me the time needed to write some more insightful thoughts than my first thoughts. I have already decided that I shall ignore the 1000 words request.

I want to throw it out there right away, I have had friends die while technical diving. Some of them the reasons were easily discerned; others only speculation is possible.

Risk is inherent in technical diving, and indeed even in sport diving.  Elimination of the risk is not possible, so I choose the strategy of mitigation as my best chance of survival.  According to my Google search, Mitigation is: the action of reducing the severity, seriousness, or painfulness of something. That will work. I much prefer mitigation over luck, which is the favored approach by many “technical divers” I have observed over the years. Believing strongly in the words of Hunter S. Thompson, “Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many can keep their balance on it”.

So instead of writing an article on what gives you the best chance of survival in an emergency, I have deftly taken artistic license and changed the subject to – risk mitigation for technical diving. I won’t claim this is an exhaustive, comprehensive, or the definitive article on it but I am hopeful it provides the basis of an internal conversation you have with yourself as a technical diver as you define your approach to technical diving, your personal risk mitigation strategies and even your personal risk tolerance.

So here are some of the mitigation strategies that could be a factor in your survival in an emergency.

For the sake of brevity I will make the assumption you are trained and certified for the diving you are planning.

Avoid them– It almost seems trite to repeat the old saw “Plan your dive and dive your plan” but it is absolutely among the best advice you can follow.  In technical diving we plan our dives in meticulous detail. Doing so means that at any stage of the dive a variance from the plan is immediately noticeable and is cause to THUMB the dive.  Many, if not most, technical diving accidents are the result of compounding “little” issues that snowball into an unmanageable mess. By planning your dive and calling the dive when it goes outside the plan “envelope” you are stopping the accident chain from getting worse.

Do dives that you are not only trained to do but have recent and sufficient experience to do– If it’s been some time since you have been in the water doing a multi stage dive… do a few single stage dives, then  build yourself back up to the level of proficiency you once had. It’s really easy to want to do the “big dives” in the limited time frame you have to dive in; it is also a seductively stupid thing to do.  It’s also stupid to assume that because you hold a still hot-from-the-machine c card that says you are the latest uber diver that you can do a dive to the ragged limits of your training. Embrace gaining experience.

Don’t enter the water with a problem– I talked briefly about the snowball above, it makes no sense to make one and let it start rolling down the mountain and not expect it to grow. Yet every time somebody enters the water with a known issue that is exactly what they are doing! The problem can be self-related, like mentally not prepared, distracted, off your game, not in shape; team–related, where they could be having some type of issue; or equipment-related, “small” stuff that you “feel” you can manage (also new or newly serviced equipment has no place on a technical dive until broken in on dives that offer recreational surface access).

Buoyancy and trim– Yeah, I’m gonna go there. Too many “technical divers” haven’t spent enough time working on this. Some mistakenly think it’s really only important in cave diving, possibly wrecks. It isn’t just about anti-silting technique however! Proper buoyancy and trim reduces the effort required to dive, reducing gas consumption, CO2 issues, and improves the efficiency of on and off gassing. All critical in technical diving, no matter what type! Too often I see a technical diver with marginal buoyancy and trim skills unable to manage increased task loading without losing buoyancy and trim. Once again we are back to the exponential functions of a snowball rolling downhill… that’s a BAD thing.  Take control and master buoyancy and trim, the effort is rewarded a thousand times over in comfort, enjoyment and safety.  Don’t emulate YouTube videos and discovery channel divers… seek some training with instructors that have superb buoyancy and trim, it’s worth it.

Can you hold your breath?- You damn well should be able to, but too many can’t.  In technical diving bolting to the surface to deal with an emergency is NOT an option. So… assume that in the event you suddenly can’t breathe that you will need to deploy and use your redundant gas supply, and that “suddenly” will happen when you least expect it. If you are not comfortable holding your breath for one minute, get comfortable. Seek some breath-hold training, virtually anybody can hold it for a minute, and a minute could be a lifetime in sorting out a problem underwater. If a technical diver is not used to and comfortable with holding their breath, a sudden inability to breathe is cause for immediate panic. Panic is death in technical diving. Give yourself the confidence you can ALWAYS hold your breath at least a minute and resolve your issue.

Peer pressure- Understand it and eliminate it.  Trust me dives are dumb, doing dives that are bigger than your skill set just to fit in is stupid, and doing dives to impress others is moronic. Don’t die of fatal stupidity. The people that I dive with over and over and trust are the ones that foster a culture of “any dive can be called by any diver for any reason, nobody ever pressures and we dive to the lowest skill level unless teaching, mentoring is an expected part of our diving”.

Debrief every dive- It makes you a better diver because the process involves examining how well you executed your plan and how well you did in general. This is NOT a beat yourself or your teammates to death but discussing and working on constantly evolving your skills, knowledge, and ability as a diver.

Practice emergency skills often- These skills do pretty much go away when not practiced. When you need them,you need them to be as flawless as the situation allows. Practice them! Do S Drill’s. NEVER dive on a technical dive with somebody that you have not reviewed and practiced emergency drills with. A real emergency is NOT the time to find out you each have no clue how the other has been taught (or not taught – card not withstanding) to handle emergencies.

Wear sunscreen, wide brim hat and sunglasses-  The other thing 20 years of this has taught me is that my cohorts are getting cataracts removed in their 40’s and 50’s and dealing with skin cancer… that sucks to survive a few thousand dives and die early in a miserable fashion because sunscreen and a hat were too much work. REALLY.

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12 replies
  1. Gareth Lock
    Gareth Lock says:

    Chris, thanks for this.

    Peer pressure is an interesting one because in many cases you don’t know what you don’t know. If you are going on a ‘trust me’ dive, you are already starting down the path of no return because otherwise you would have not gone there. The closer you get to the jump off point, the harder it is to say no. Human nature is a bitch sometimes. The further you go down that ‘rabbit hole’ the harder it is mentally to say no. Same with equipment preparation and failures – much easier to thumb the dive on the quayside than having driven two hours out in the boat in blue skies and flat calm waters on a virgin wreck and then be reminded on the decision you have to make.

    Adverse peer pressure can really only be stopped by reducing authority gradients and making yourself (senior position) approachable. One of the case studies I discuss is listed here https://issuu.com/divermedicandaquaticsafety/docs/divermedicmagazine_issue6 under single cylinder entanglement. The ‘victim’ was trying to help but didn’t feel like she could. She no longer dives in that group but the instructor is still taking people out in unsafe conditions…

    Thanks for the article.



  2. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    nice summary of basic elements that often get overlooked due to complacency-and speaking of basics, is it just me, or could we do a better job with the donation technique displayed in the image?

  3. Tim
    Tim says:

    Very good article. However, covering the purge valve of the reg you’re donating (picture) isnt’t really my idea of risk mitigation… is that really how TDI teaches an S-drill?

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      The author (me) did not choose the picture. I agree the purge should not be covered, I dislike the dangly light and for me as soon as my arm is extended with the long hose my left hand is clearing the long hose from under my canister (Backmount/single in BP/W) and clearing the hose from the cylinder wraps for sidemount. But hey…

      • Dragos Calistru
        Dragos Calistru says:

        I will read it and eventually I will even share it. But not until you change the picture which, by the way, does not honor a respectful technical diving agency.

        • SDI/TDI/ERDI
          SDI/TDI/ERDI says:

          Thanks for the comment Dragos. We like the picture and think that it draws attention to the article. Remember that some photos are taken during training, gear (like the vertically oriented scubapro here) is different, and procedures vary location to location and instructor to instructor. Sorry the photo isn’t to your liking but hopefully that doesn’t deter you from reading and learning from the article.

  4. Brian Senecal
    Brian Senecal says:

    As we learn more and more about sunscreen and its contribution to coral bleaching it might be time to change that to wear protective sun clothing and skip the sunscreen.

  5. Carlos Aguilar
    Carlos Aguilar says:

    Great article. More than half the time I see these posts, they seem to be advertisements or written soley for SEO linking. I’m glad it’s not one.

    As a NAUI Scuba Instructor and a TDI Technical Instructor myself, these are subjects I cover right from the beginning of every open water training course…

    I am finding that the best part of being an independent instructor is that I don’t have the need to push students through the system just to rack up numbers and since I don’t sell dive equipment, my focus is education!

    I’ll be posting this to my Facebook page so the world can see it and encourage everyone out there to seek out the best education possible and never sacrifice common sense for convenience.

  6. Parham
    Parham says:

    What does the author mean by “a sudden inability to breathe”? In what scenario this incident can happen where a diver suddenly can’t breathe of the regulator?

    • Brittany Bozik
      Brittany Bozik says:

      Great question, gear an malfunctions and that would cause you the sudden inability to breathe off your primary


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