By Robert N. Rossier | visit DAN Online
An old adage in aviation says that an exceptional pilot uses his exceptional knowledge to avoid needing his exceptional skill.
The same really does apply in diving. Without a doubt, the key to safe diving lies in making good decisions, preferably sooner rather than later. In diving, making good decisions requires an assessment of three critical factors: our equipment; the environment; and our own skills and abilities.
Too often, divers exhibit questionable attitudes about one or more of these factors. Such attitudes can influence behavior, and the divers can find themselves in deep trouble. By looking at some of the ways divers get into trouble, perhaps we can learn a few lessons that will make us better – and safer – divers.
About a year ago, I read an article about a diver who died near Lover’s Point in Monterey, Calif. The story’s title was "Diver’s Death a Mystery." To the uninitiated and experienced alike, it would seem the accident truly was a mystery. But as I read through the article, revealing signs emerged, foreshadowing the diver’s demise.
Apparently the 20-year veteran diver had recently returned from Cozumel, where she completed more than a dozen dives. On the fateful morning, she entered the 50-degree F (10 C) water of Lover’s Point with her brother. The two became separated. According to the report, she may have become entangled in kelp, although I haven’t been able to verify that as fact.
Perhaps the most noteworthy gear issue is a description of the diver’s equipment. Apparently the diver had a buoyancy compensation device (BCD) that was about 25 years old, and although she was given a new one, she supposedly preferred her old one. It is unclear if she had worn the old BCD at the time of the accident. When she inquired about a drysuit some days before the dive, an employee at the dive center reportedly commented that her archaic equipment would cost her her life.
For all we know, the diver’s equipment was in perfect operating condition. If she was comfortable using it, then perhaps we can understand why she shied away from the new gear. On the other hand, using out-of-date equipment might indicate an attitude problem: perhaps complacency or overconfidence in one’s ability or equipment. That "old dog" seems to be saying, "I’ve been doing it this way for 20 years, and I don’t see a reason to change now…"
Some rather poignant statistics might convince us how important it is to ensure that our equipment is up to the task of supporting life – our life. Of particular interest is the fact born out in figure 4.2-10 (next page) of the DAN Report on Recompression Illness, Diving Fatalities and Project Dive Exploration 2004 Edition. This figure indicates that equipment problems were involved in 44 of the 89 diver fatalities reported in 2002. Without a doubt, equipment problems can represent a serious problem; having a cavalier attitude about it is almost certainly a recipe for trouble.
The diver apparently had recent experience in the warmer waters of Cozumel, Mexico, while this accident occurred in California — two decidedly different environments. While it’s unclear whether the diver had recent experience in the cold waters of Monterey, the circumstances nevertheless underscore the importance of experience – preferably recent – in the environment about to be entered. While we may have the skills and experience to dive in one particular environment, we can readily find our skills and knowledge lacking as we enter a different realm. Again, it’s a matter of attitude, and it’s easy to become so confident in one setting that we overestimate our ability in another.
Unused skills soon become dull; when assessing our ability, we should remember the importance of recent diving experience. Figure 4.1-6 (next page) in the DAN report suggests a lack of recent dive experience as a possible contributor in fatal diving accidents. Roughly one-third of the male divers who perished in 2002 had made between 0 and 19 dives in the past 12 months, compared to less than 5 percent of the male diver fatalities for any other range of past experience. Nearly 60 percent of the female divers who perished that same year had between 0 and 19 dives in the past 12 months; less than 10 percent had more than 80 dives in the previous 12 months.
We don’t know the recent experience levels of all the divers diving in that year; it is difficult to draw any solid conclusions. However, we may still ponder the possibility that a lack of recent experience could put us at a disadvantage in the water.
Ready to Dive
The real kicker comes when we don’t recognize our own personal limits, and we charge off on a course of action that ultimately demands more than we’re capable of. Our abilities can change from day to day, or even from hour to hour.
To make an assessment of our immediate readiness to dive, use the I’M SAFE checklist, adopted from the world of aviation and adapted to the needs of divers. This acronym stands for Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue and Eating (including hydration). If we find ourselves compromised by any of these, we should reconsider our fitness for a dive.
When it comes to decision-making, the attitude we take toward safety influences our behavior. Certain attitudes may have adverse effects on our decision-making, and therefore compromise our safety. Pilots are taught to identify five such attitudes commonly associated with aircraft accidents. Paired with each of these attitudes are "antidotes" or reminders to help pilots adjust their action and make safe choices. These same attitudes, which follow, apply equally to divers, and the antidotes can be just as helpful in correcting faulty decision-making.
We see it all too often in diving. This applies to an individual who resents having someone tell him what to do. Such individuals often regard rules and procedures as unnecessary. They may not recognize the need to stay with their buddies, observe no-stop limits or follow other safety-related standard protocols in diving. Failure to follow such rules often leads to incidents, accidents or injuries.
The Antidote: Recognize that the rules, procedures and protocols are there to protect us, and we should follow them.
People who adhere to the next attitude believe that bad things happen to others, not to themselves. Thus, they are more likely to take chances and expose themselves to unnecessary risks. Their actions often catch up with them when they least expect it, possibly endangering themselves and others.
The Antidote: Remind ourselves that bad things could happen to us; we should follow the rules.
Particularly when a situation begins to run amuck, we can observe another attitude: Impulsiveness. A diver may feel a need to do something – anything – immediately. Thus, he might act on the first thing that comes to mind, rather than by carefully considering the alternatives. A diver faced with a free-flowing regulator might immediately bolt for the surface. From day one, virtually all divers should strive to learn better control.
The Antidote: Stop, think, breathe and then act.
The diver who embraces this attitude may attempt to prove he is a superior diver by taking risks. Rather than stopping to consider the risks and make a more objective evaluation of the situation, the macho diver charges ahead with a "can-do" mindset that can lead to disaster. While this is thought to be a male pattern, women are also susceptible to this hazardous attitude.
The Antidote: Recognize that taking chances is dangerous.
This attitude is evident in divers who do not see themselves as making a difference in what happens to them: that is, they don’t see themselves as in control. They seem to believe that positive events are simply due to good luck, and bad things happen as the result of bad luck or by the actions of others. For better or worse, they take the role of follower rather than leader, and leave the decision-making and action to others.
Divers who blindly following the lead of guides or divemasters rather than take some responsibility for personally planning their dives display an example o fthis attitude.
The Antidote: Recognize that you are not helpless, that others – even others who perhaps should be more knowledgeable than we are – are not infallible, and to take responsibility for your own safety.
Checking the Attitude
Virtually all divers can exhibit these attitudes to some degree, but if we stay on the lookout, we might be able to prevent them from seriously affecting our decision-making.
A few months ago, as we prepared to sell our home and move, I had an opportunity to sort through all my dive gear. As an old pack rat from way back, I found it difficult to throw anything away, especially expensive dive gear. But as I sorted through various bags and racks, I realized some of my own gear was getting a bit long in the tooth – ancient by some standards. And although most of it was probably in good working order, or could be made so, I decided to throw it out. Perhaps it was the best gear around when it was new, but the years and salt-water soakings had taken their toll, and considering it is life support equipment, I ought to keep it up to date. After all, I’m not invulnerable.
A really good diver is one who has developed the attitude and judgment necessary to avoid getting into trouble. That means keeping skills sharp, maintaining and updating our equipment, evaluating the dive environment, and objectively assessing our own fitness. Most importantly, it means having a positive attitude toward safety.
I’M SAFE Checklist
E Eating (and hydration)
About The Author
DAN Member Bob Rossier is a former life support systems engineer who worked on projects such as the NASA Space Station and the U.S. Navy Trident Nuclear Submarine Program. Bob is a contributing editor to Dive Training magazine and a commercial pilot in the U.S. Northeast.
(c) DAN – Alert Diver January / February 2005