Of all six basic skills, Situational Awareness (SA) is my favorite skill to teach and coach. And, like Breathing, it is one that is virtually ignored in mainstream diver education programs, yet it is without argument a critical part of safe diving at any level; particularly in technical diving.
Put briefly, SA is the chess-player’s skill but applied in an environment where checkmate can result in real physical harm, and not just a wooden game piece being knocked over sideways.
SA has been a core concept in high-stress operating environments, such as the military and aviation, for many years. SA skills support the ability of individuals operating in this type of environment to handle complex and rapidly changing situations in which informed decisions need to be made under tight time constraints.
The simplest definition I’ve found is that SA is being aware of what is happening around you and understanding how information, events, and your own actions will impact your goals and objectives, both now and in the near future. Sounds exactly suited to the underwater realm to me.
The most authoritative voice in the study and application of SA is Mica Endsley, and I would suggest you find a copy of her white-paper: Toward a Theory of Situation Awareness in Dynamic Systems if you are interested in digging deeper into SA theory and practice. But it’s not required reading. As Endsley says, prehistoric humans probably had an innate understanding of SA in order to survive so the basics are hardwired into us all. We just have to work at pulling the skill out from behind all the civilized creature-comfort complacency that prevents us from bringing it into the game at playtime.
Endsley defines SA as, “the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future.” And she breaks SA capability into three levels:
1/ Perception – of cues and stimulus from the environment
2/ Comprehension – involving the integration of information to facilitate relevance determination and sense-making
3/ Projection – the ability to forecast future situation events and dynamics
In addition, Endsley highlights the importance of temporal factors to SA, for example in understanding:
- a/ how much time is available until some event occurs or some action must be taken
b/ the rate at which information is changing currently to help project future state
Divers need to be on top of all three levels, and are required to make decisions in an environment where time is always in short supply.
1/ Divide the dive into manageable segments to limit task loading
2/ Set way points and do not become distracted
3/ Track actual progress against dive plan
4/ Make allowances for Murphy
5/ Make adjustments within the constructs of the dive plan and only within the dive plan
6/ Identify problems early. This is key. If something appears to be going off the rails, it probably is. Do not ignore it!
7/ React immediately or before! Seriously, act to correct a minor infraction before it grows into a problem.
As a diver’s SA becomes more attuned, he notices more about his surroundings and situation.
Typically, a novice diver has a limited awareness of self, some awareness of equipment, but can easily loose track of his buddy and be taken off guard by changes in his surroundings. Just by being in the water, he is task-loaded and his SA drops off to zero. If you are going to function as a good technical diver, your SA has to be at a seven or eight at least! Be aware of yourself; how you feel and how comfortable you are. Be aware of your kit. Does it feel right and is it functioning correctly? How about your buddies? What’s happening with them; does everything look as it should? And finally, your surroundings; are they what you planned for? Is there anything out of place or not as you expected?
Situational Awareness really boils down to being alert and cautious. For example, a technical diver only looks at his SPG to confirm how much gas is left in his cylinders; elapsed time, and his work level will already have informed him what reading to expect. Situational Awareness also informs a good diver if a team member is uncomfortable or stressed by reading his body language and small hints like breathing rate (assuming open circuit of course). It will also allow him to notice that a team member has a piece of kit out of place before that team member does.
LACK OF SA is the most common reason for a student at this level to fail his course!
PAY ATTENTION and STAY FOCUSED.
Something worth remembering. Please write this down. Any diver can thumb any dive for any reason… no questions asked.
During our time together, if you feel uncomfortable, stressed or feel that things are not going as planned during a dive and want out, do not hesitate to CALL THE DIVE.
There are a number of mistakes a diver can make at this level. One of the most SERIOUS is to put-off calling a dive.