The Best Rescue Divers Don’t Have to Rescue

It may sound strange but it’s generally accepted that the best, most successful rescue divers don’t have to actually rescue anyone because they are able to recognize signs of impending panic and are savvy enough to intervene before true panic happens.

Of course, the question most aspiring rescue divers ask at this point goes something like: “Is that a learned skill, and if so, is it difficult to learn?”

The short answer is: yes it is, and no it isn’t!

When we imagine a rescue diver in action, what flashes before our eyes – initially at least – is an image of a neoprene-clad hero(ine) pulling an unconscious diver from the raging surf… Think GQ cover meets Surfer Magazine and you’re halfway there. Then after a few nanoseconds, the real image kicks in and it’s not so pretty; not as organized; and certainly not as heroic. The truth is that a full-blown rescue, as welcome as it may be in a disastrous situation, is simply something we should strive to avoid at all costs. In essence, a good rescue is one that may consists of a quiet word before the dive and either a change in the dive plan or a retreat to the nearest café for a coffee, a Danish pastry and a chat about tomorrow’s dive rather than today’s.

One of the pre-dive skills required in every technical diving program is something labelled stress assessment. This step in the pre-dive ritual is a vital “rescue” technique, and it applies to both self-assessment as well as buddy or team assessment.

Given that you and your buddy or buddies are certified, equipped and have the experience to enjoy your planned dive without undue risk, the day-by-day stock questions you should ask yourself are: Am I up for this dive? Do I feel good about the dive conditions today? Do I feel ready to do this dive? Am I comfortable with the things that need to be done to make sure this dive is fun? And finally, how does my buddy (or buddies) feel about the dive?

This step alone – coupled with honest answers and a real understanding that there is no shame in calling a dive at any time… even before you pull on your gear – goes a long way toward making you a “successful” rescue diver.

Speaking with divers following an aborted dive — a dive where things went absolutely pear-shaped — a sobering but not surprising statistic is the large percentage of them who say: “I just knew something was going to go wrong,” or “I had a funny feeling about the dive before we suited up.”

If a rescue diver has one simple but truly important task to do at the dock, on the beach, at the dive site before the actual in-water part of the dive starts, it’s to conduct a quick survey of every diver – including herself – to check if everyone really is happy with the dive plan and feels no pressure to do the dive.

During the dive itself, even without the use of diver to diver voice communications, there are ways to keep checking that everyone is happy. What are they? Let’s review the opening statement that was used to kick this article off… “Recognize signs of impending panic, and are savvy enough to intervene before it happens.”

This form of clairvoyance – being able to tell when something is about to fall off the rails and do something about it BEFORE it happens – is not telepathy or some other psychic power, but a perfectly attainable skill called Situational Awareness, and a good rescue diver needs it.

In the most general terms, situational awareness is perhaps the most under-rated, unsung components of safe and successful diving operations.

In advanced diving discussions, we have adopted the term Situational Awareness (SA) as a sort of catch-all phrase to describe what we mean when we say: “keenly aware”; and probably for good reasons. SA has been a core concept in high-stress operating environments, such as the military and aviation, for many years.

In these milieu, SA skills support the ability of individuals to handle complex and rapidly changing situations in which informed decisions – directly relating to personal and team well-being – need to be made under tight time constraints. In these high-stress settings, lack of SA is one of the primary factors in accidents attributed to Human Error.

For the purposes of rescue divers, SA is best described as being aware of what is happening around you and your team, and understanding how the flow of events, and the actions of team members will impact your dive’s goals and objectives; both now and in the near future.

It also encompasses the skill of selecting which bits of information are relevant and which are not and can be discarded.

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 sideways.

One key sign of a buddy’s comfort level while underwater is his or her respiration rate (at least on open circuit gear). A nice relaxed breathing rhythm generally means a nice relaxed diver. Faster breath cycles may be a sign of tension, carbon dioxide build-up, overwork, and are often the first outward sign that forewarns of events that can domino into bedlam if left unattended.

I have a good idea of my normal breathing rate during a moderate dive – it’s around eight per minute and therefore somewhere south of the adult resting average of 12 to 16 breaths per minute. I self-monitor during a dive, but I also pay attention to the bubble “signatures” of the divers around me, trying to pay particular attention to changes in the frequency of each diver’s exhalation. It’s certainly not a definitive marker of approaching problems, but a rapid increase in breathing is something a good rescue diver might want to pay attention to.

If your buddy starts to work hard and breath more heavily than usual, get their attention, slow them down, give them some reassurance — such as an OK sign and a squeeze on the arm — will show them that you are watching out for them. Something as simple as getting a diver to pause and wait for a few beats before carrying on can easily avert an unpleasant episode further along.

If you dive with the same crew on a pretty regular basis, you also learn other more subtle signs and body language that will indicate that they are less than comfortable.

As a rescue diver, it is always in YOUR best interest to pay attention to these little markers during a dive. Sure you may be capable of executing a perfect tired diver tow and safe ascent with a semi-conscious buddy, but why take the chance when that whole scenario can be avoided by stepping in a few minutes early?

A slightly different version of this article was first published in Technical Diving International’s eNewsletter in June 2013.

What it takes to lead a technical diving team: A suggested plan for staying real and managing risk

One of the most interesting dynamics of technical diving… both during its planning and execution… revolves around the issue of leadership. It’s not simply a question of who leads and who follows but a much more complex balancing act between responsibilities, experience, team composition and dive goals. And since technical diving is recognized as a high-risk, team-oriented activity, coming up with the correct answers can mean the difference between a great dive and a bad experience.

I guess the most important first step is to understand what we mean by leadership and the factors that inform that definition.

We should start by pointing out that one of the fundamental guidelines recommended is: “The weakest diver leads the dive.”

Now weakest in this context is not an assessment of physical strength or mental fortitude – although these may be factors in some cases. More usually a diver may be “weak” because he or she has less experience with the particular sort of dive being planned and how best to achieve the dive’s specific goals; or they may start the dive with another more subtle disadvantage. On some ocean dives, weakest may be the diver most prone to seasickness and who has taken meds to help deal with that particular stress. It may also be the diver who among his or her peers on the particular day in question wakes up the least rested or most stressed… as in “I’ll lead the dive today because I had a restless night.”

Whatever the actual reason for “weakness” the logic behind this guideline is that it helps eliminate “trust me dives.” In cases where the least experienced diver is the leader, it also offers the best opportunity for that diver to expand his or her comfort zone. Let’s take the example of a cave dive with a three-person team. For this example, let’s say that two of the team have explored the cave on several occasions but for one, this is her first time in. All three may be experienced cave divers, but one is certainly at a slight disadvantage. By having her LEAD the dive, two things are assured. Firstly, she will not be lead into a situation which she finds uncomfortable. Her level of comfort on the dive will most likely be increased since it will go at her pace, and with two companions to “guide” her when the time comes to make a decision – for example “is this the right side-passage to take…” – her comfort zone may be expanded but not breached.

The result will most likely be a much more enjoyable dive for everyone involved since stress levels can be better managed.

This example of leadership during the actual execution of a cave dive may not relate directly to the type of diving you do, but the logic is transferable to all varieties of technical or complex advanced diving whether in a hard overhead environment or not.

It also introduces us to part of the complexity that surrounds the whole question of Leadership in Technical diving, and its definition relative to the importance of coaching and mentorship in the process.

Let’s recap and redefine a little. The weakest diver leads during the EXECUTION of a dive, but this diver would most likely take a backseat role during the actual PLANNING of that same dive.

If we go back to our example, let’s travel by time-machine to a day or two before the execution of the dive to the time our three dive buddies sat down together to plan the dive. We know that all three are experienced cave dives and during their initial assessment of the dive’s parameters they agreed that each had the appropriate training, familiarity with the required equipment, and general experience in the type of environment. What was apparent was that one needed a detailed briefing on the specifics on the dive since she had never been to the site before. This is where the dynamics that influence leadership in technical diving comes into play.

In old-school terms, leadership might be interpreted as the behavior of a tartar or martinet. A person who demands strict adherence to his or her rules and any deviation from those rules will result in some sort of punitive reaction: verbal or otherwise. I am reasonably sure that many of you have first-hand experience of this form of bullying and “management” by intimidation. There is no place for this style of leadership in technical diving… or anywhere else actually. It may have worked to send hapless souls over the trenches during WWI but is about as useful in diving as ashtrays on a motorcycle. There is simply no room for this attitude anywhere close to technical divers planning their dive.

The leader during this stage needs to be empathetic, supportive and their role is more akin to a coach or mentor: someone who encourages others to contribute ideas and suggestions. A real leader shares knowledge, has real information, suggests better alternatives when asked, and gets satisfaction from helping others grow. Essentially, a good leader produces good leaders.
In the example of the planning for the cave dive, the leader might respond to questions about distances and times with something like: “what do you feel comfortable doing?” rather than pushing his or her agenda. In fact, an important part of the mentoring process is to promote the goals of others even when it makes their own subordinate.

For most of our dives, up-front considerations of leadership are a little over-the-top. The vast majority of dives – even technical ones – follow a pattern that is established within the team and roles and responsibilities are simple, understood and virtually unspoken. Often on this type of dive, leadership amounts to little more than: “Hey Jill, how about you run the reel today?” But when game-day brings those special dives… the apex dives for your team… give special consideration to the dynamics of team leadership. Oh, and remember that changing circumstances at depth, may alter who is “weakest” and may require change of “leadership!” But of course, that’s something best learned under the mentorship and coaching of an experienced technical instructor!

A slightly different version of this article appeared in TDI’s eNewsletter in May 2013