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.