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Technical Public Safety
Ice Diving

Walt "Butch" Hendrick

Ice Site

The words technical diving are popping up all around the diving world these days. Sometimes I am not sure how they actually relate; does technical diving mean that we are just diving mixed gases, or does it mean that we are actually planning a technically responsible dive? No matter how you look at it, the words technical diving have a definite meaning when we discuss ice diving, and specifically as it pertains to public safety ice rescue and recovery.

Ice is responsible for several drowning deaths every year. Sadly, statistics show that ice divers add to those deaths. More often than not, we do not just lose one diver under the ice, but rather two divers die in a single incident. Why does this happen? Working on and under the ice is not unlike any other water operation, except that it requires more planning, a greater number of properly trained support personnel, more equipment, and a higher level of professional training. It happens because non-overhead environment, sport diving, techniques are used.

Ice diving is high-end technical diving; it takes place in an overhead environment, with limited access and exit, difficult environmental conditions, and often restricted or confined spaces. Public safety divers have the potential of performing more ice dives and placing themselves at higher risk potential than any other diving group. Since public safety divers cannot pre-plan when or where their next ice dive will take place, they need to be better and more specifically trained in varying conditions for the job. So, training on good, solid, supportive ice is not the real world! Public safety divers must operate with the concept that no ice is safe ice. After all, we would not have been called to the frozen waters if someone had not already proven the ice was unsafe.

All of the aspects of ice diving must be practiced and prepared for before commencing any ice rescue and recovery operation. Sport ice diver training does not fit the bill for public safety ice diving. Most sport ice diver training is designed for a single experience, for comfort, and, of course, for a pleasurable and enjoyable experience. While there is nothing wrong with guiding people through an ice diving adventure, doing so does not fit the need of public safety divers, who will be required to run every aspect of the operation and ice dive in a variety of conditions.

Many dive teams are too use to allowing their divers to conduct free-swimming searches or jack-stand search operations, often with four or more divers down at a time and tether lines around wrists or attached to a portion of their dive gear. Well, this is not Kansas any more, Toto, and those techniques will not work here.

What are some of the considerations for public safety ice diving?

Is command ready to function in that environment? Does command understand how ice rescue differs from other water responses? Do all personnel have the proper flotation and hypothermic personal protective equipment (PPE)? Is the team ice dive certified, and has the team drilled for this event?

Have we trained a support crew that understands the needs of surface and subsurface ice operations? Are support personnel prepared with proper (PPE), and proper procedures for securing the site, as well for aiding divers both above and below the ice? Do they truly understand how the equipment works and all of the possible dangers? Frozen equipment, hypothermia, rescue personnel falling through the ice, an underwater diver emergency, lack of access, and loss of egress, are just a few of the problems they could face.

Diver Have tenders been trained in how to control a diver in an overhead environment with single access and exit? Do they really know how to tend, with proper signals and procedures, in these conditions, and not just hold a line? Do they understand why we do not allow the primary diver more than a suggested maximum of 75 feet from the point of entry, or how much line to give to the back-up diver in case of a primary diver emergency or disconnect? Have tenders practiced tending on their bellies, with their own tethers back to a shore crew because the ice cannot support standing personnel? Will they understand why we try to keep the divers’ bubbles out of the egress area?

As ice divers, we work on the concept that if the primary diver requires assistance, the back-up will submerge and respond, which is a procedure requiring redundant training between divers and tenders. So, think about how long it takes for a diver to swim 100 feet (without becoming exhausted) just to be capable of reaching another diver. Compound this with the concept that if the primary diver has become disconnected, the back-up diver will respond by swimming an additional 20 feet beyond the last known location of the primary diver and begin a slow, 360-degree circle close to the ice roof with a taut tether line. Assuming nothing goes wrong with the back-up diver, the plan is that the disconnected primary diver will rise, if possible, to the ice roof, in hopes of snagging or seeing the back-up’s safety line. Or, it is possible that an unconscious primary diver will be caught in the back-up diver’s tether line and be brought back toward the point of entry in the loop made by the tether. This contingency plan requires training and practice for it to work in a real incident.

As for the distance the back-up diver will be swimming, try it without ice and see how long and how much effort it requires to swim up to 150 feet straight out, make a 360-degree swim and return the 150 feet to point of entry. At the same time, bear in mind the total workload placed on the back-up diver. Consider that we do not want his regulator freezing up with heavy breathing and shallow water, nor do we want the diver to be unable to perform rescue work or even personal survival when and if he does arrive at the primary diver. Like most plans, this all sounds great on paper or spoken hypothetically. But, this is the real world, and if you do not train for the worst scenario, you most likely will not be able to make it work when you need it.

Ice can create the most difficult water rescue and recovery of your life. Have you and your team trained for the real world of Technical Ice Rescue?

Are your dive safety lines marked every 5 feet so you can record a diver’s current or last known location in case of emergency? All too often, we discover that support personnel are simply team members that have been handed a safety line and asked to help. Other than a great attitude, they may not have realistic training or realization of the job at hand.

Do they understand that allowing the primary diver more than limited access between shore and dive operations could have a two-fold effect? First, in shallow water, divers can become entrapped between the ice and the bottom. Second, divers’ bubbles will erode the ice under the exit route, and possibly destroy the planned egress.

Have they trained in how to deploy back-up and support personnel when standard access is not possible? Think about it when the ice is not safe to stand on, which is normal. How do you tend? How do you control the environment? The answer is get the right training and gear, then practice, practice, practice, with correct techniques. Does the surface crew understand how to properly use flotation platforms, such as boats or ice ramps, or how to control their divers when they are forced into a prone position in order to tend from weak ice?

Have the divers been trained properly for PSD ice overhead environments? Are they wearing and practicing with quick-release pony bottles or another true alternate air source, not an octopus, which is solely for non-overhead environment, shallow, warm, high visibility sport diving?

Under the ice, if the second stage free-flows, there is a good chance the first stage will soon freeze up as well. At that point, all an octopus is going to do is empty the tank much faster than if only one second stage came off the regulator.

Breathing off a free-flowing regulator is not the first option. One minute of attempting to breathe off a free-flow under the ice can make your mouth so cold that the tip of your tongue can freeze and you cannot hold your mouthpiece in place. And if you switch to an octopus to avoid a free-flowing primary second-stage, it will be unlikely that the first stage does not free-flow. Breathing with a first stage free-flow is like breathing off a ski mountain snow-making machine. The first option is to switch to the pony mouthpiece off a pony regulator. An octopus is not an acceptable option.

Next, what does an octopus do for you if your cylinder empties? Absolutely nothing!

What is an octopus going to do for you as a back-up diver assisting an entangled primary diver? First, it makes it much more difficult or impossible to work around the diver to solve the entanglement/entrapment problem. Second, it increases the chance of your death or injury since you are now attached to an entangled diver who is draining your only air source. Third, it prevents you from being able to surface for any reason, including obtaining additional tools. Fourth, and very importantly, you are now much more likely to experience a first stage freeze-up because two divers are breathing from one first stage, so the likelihood of you running out-of-air is high. Now what? Where is your plan now?

If divers are wearing full-face masks, what is their plan for switching to a redundant air source? Are they carrying a standard mask in case the full-face mask has to be removed? Do they have a block on the mask that allows them to keep the mask on when switching to a pony or another air source brought down by the back-up diver? Have they redundantly practiced these plans when physically stressed, while wearing blacked-out masks and thick gloves?

Are your divers wearing harnesses properly designed for technical overhead environment diving, securely fastened with proper attachments? Keep in mind, an accidental diver disconnect is your worst horror! Do you really want to just tie a line to your diver?

Are your diving supervisors and divemasters trained in this type of cold, overhead environment operation, or are they simply trying to wing it and adapt techniques used for warm water? Have they been through an actual divemaster ice diving program, and have they practiced controlling a mock ice diving situation during the summer months to make sure that the team is still ice functional?

Public safety ice diving may be the most technical diving you or your team will ever do. Learning how to do it right may save the lives of you and your teammates.


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