Zero-to-Hero… there are no winners in training shortcuts

If all you can think of when you read the phrase “Zero to Hero” is a British post-punk band, hats off to yer! However, chances are that as a diver, the phrase has other connotations: far less entertaining.

I really have no clue where and when the Zero-to-Hero epithet was first applied to diving. I heard it around the time that the whole concept of technical diving and especially technical diver training began to enter mainstream dive-community awareness, sometime in the early to mid 1990s. At that time, Zero-to-Hero was applied specifically divers who miraculously leapfrogged from newbie to expert seemingly overnight.

It worked like this: a small core of instructors and dive shops started to advertize “boot camps” that promised punters some form of guaranteed certification at the end of a week or so of “intense training.”

An example from that time was a seven-day “mega-course” that swept candidates – advanced open-water divers who carried no technical certifications or experience — to trimix certification by the time the circus wrapped up. (For the record, this meant guaranteed certification to conduct full decompression dives on helium mixes with exposure up to 60 metres deep.) I believe the prerequisites to sign-up for these programs included having a pulse, a checkbook, and a broad gullible streak.

Gullibility? Well, at issue was the obvious. If one looked closely at some agency standards, it was just about possible to cram into a seven-day period, the required classroom, confined water and open water dives. Possible yes, but far from desirable… and certainly could not possibly carry any guarantee that participants would have earned their certifications at the end of it.

From a training agency perspective, this type of course barely met the letter of the law, and certainly bent the spirit of it into the shape of a banana. What was missing from the equation was experience. The poor punter would find himself or herself dragged into progressively more complex dives  day after day without any time to catch their breath or reflect on the lessons to be learned. They would be taken at lightning speed with little time to ask questions – or more importantly, discover answers – as they progressed rapidly from a normal dive plan that consisted of a quick “Let’s go diving…” to something that would help protect them and give them the tools to ascend from water deep enough to cover a 20-storey high-rise.

At the end of their “intensive training” they would have completed a handful of staged decompression dives under the auspices of an instructor –and auspices is about as apt a term as possible to describe what would have been going on for seven days. Unfortunately, playing follow-the-leader on what was essentially a guided, trust-me dive does not constitute technical diver training.

The certifying instructor’s crime – if functioning without a moral compass can be classified as such – was that when all was said and done, they handed out cards which stated the holders were capable of doing the same dives at some future date without the help of a baby-sitter.

I worked on the Training Advisory Panel of a large agency at the time and, like many of my peers, felt there was something wrong with that. Apparently, we were not alone, and to my knowledge, the temptation to promote this sort of fast-track program for John and Jill Diver was pistol-whipped out of the rank and file tech instructors by many of the major, reputable tech agencies. In addition, the market, divers who were expected to buy-into the concept, quickly realized that Zero-to-Hero type training was not a sound investment. Today, this fast-track practice has fallen out of favor in the tech arena: or has it?

One of the companies for whom I do consulting work, makes rebreathers: the fully closed-circuit kind. The data suggests they are the market leader world-wide… or very close to it. Certainly their brand is well-known and highly visible in the technical market.

Rebreathers are tech, correct?

Well, the dive industry is nothing if not dynamic and that’s changing. Several manufacturers – including the one I work with – are in the middle of readying themselves for a minor market tremor that promises to open rebreather diving up to sport divers.

Given a couple of provisos, I do not believe there is any real problem with that. Diving rebreathers is fun, and with real prerequisites met and enough time for practical work, a sport-diver CCR course will probably work. It will be hard work for everyone involved, but not impossible to organize and probably a whole lot of fun to deliver!

Provisos met.

The only thing that bothers me a little is that this new market opportunity – and that’s how it’s being billed within the professional segment of the dive industry – feels like an opening for the Zero-to-Hero can of worms to open up all over again. Only this time, it’s not the punters I worry about… it’s the instructors who will be delivering their training.

Most CCR manufactures have a unique power when it comes to who teaches on their units. You might think of it as a special veto. An instructor candidate (regardless of if their agency believes them ready to teach) has to be given the OK to conduct training classes by the manufacturer of the unit he or she wishes to teach on. Part of the minimum prerequisites held to by the major rebreather companies is that the instructor candidate must have logged 100 hours on the unit.

There is nothing magical about 100 hours experience flying a CCR; except it takes a while to accumulate. Also, although it does not guarantee much, it is highly likely that during the accumulation of AT LEAST 100 logged hours in the water, the majority of divers will have learned some important lessons about their unit and themselves.

CCRs work just fine… at least the two I dive seem to… but all rebreathers are unforgiving of sloppy procedure and short-cuts. Most divers will experience one – sometimes more than one – “come to Jesus” moment during 100 hours of operation. The most essential lesson they will learn is not that their unit malfunctioned, but that they dropped a stitch and the culprit is HUMAN ERROR. They will develop a visceral understanding that they were at fault.

You can read all about human error and lack of situational awareness in a book – damn, I’ve written about it myself – but the words tend to leap out of your memory and grab you around the throat when you are at 60 metres and recall that you did not do a thorough pre-dive check: and that gurgling sound is not because the rebreather was designed incorrectly. Operator error is a great teacher, and a very fine learning tool.

So, what’s the problem? Simple, really. We can expect a lot of interest in rebreather training during the next few years as this whole Sport Diver Rebreather thing hits the market, and there is going to be a temptation for instructors to “get in on the action.” I have already heard instructors selling the concept to their students. However, few of them have any experience diving rebreathers, and more to the point, do not seem to comprehend that a rebreather is unlike any piece of open-circuit kit and no amount of time on open-circuit translates to running a CCR life-support system. My fear is that some instructors may fudge their logbooks in order to attain instructor status in the shortest time possible. There are some checks and balances in place, but there are ways to cheat them too.

I may be alarmist and all this concern may be unfounded. But please, if you or someone you care for is thinking about making the switch to a rebreather, be very, very careful that you avoid any whiff of Zero-to-Hero in your instructor: regardless of the agency they teach for or the unit they teach on.

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