Each dive site should have a contingency pony bottle, a contingency 80 cu ft bottle, a rescue throw bag, sufficient first aid supplies, and drinking water.
We fully advocate the use of communication systems, but many dive teams and divers cannot afford them and Murphy's Law has taught many of us that any communication system can fail, especially when a situation goes bad.
Let's take a tethered dive as an example. You are searching for the body of a 7 year old boy in 42°F blackwater at 45 feet. You can see less than if you were in a closed closet with your hands over your eyes. If you shine a flashlight in your face it wouldn't penetrate the blackness. Your mind's eye envisions everything your fingers and body touches, leaving only a few items unidentifiable. Something bumps into you and you give a little shout into your full-face mask. You wish the team had a budget for a communication system.
As you continue on, your legs begin to feel restricted. Now you feel something pulling on your tank valve. You're entangled. Okay, stop, get your breathing under control, you're okay. Give a 2+2+2 signal telling your tender you are entangled, you are okay, and you will see if you can solve the problem yourself. Your tender returns the signal while telling the backup tender to ready the backup diver for possible descent, and to make a note on the profile slate that the diver's current location contains an entanglement.
You see if you can find the entanglement. You find it, but can't reach it, it's behind you and around your legs. No problem, you give 3+3+3 signifying I'm okay, but I need assistance. Your tender returns the signal and tells the backup tender to deploy his diver. The backup diver calmly descends down your line with a contingency quick-release strap, providing full freedom for both his hands. The backup tender notes the time and diver location on the profile slate.
A backup diver snaps into the primary diver's line with a contingency strap that allows the backup to have two hands free without losing the primary diver's line and without pulling on the line.
In less than 45 seconds your backup arrives, firmly clasping your hand which was resting on the carabiner securing your tether line to your harness. He gives a reassuring squeeze as you make a circular motion with your and his clasped hands, telling him you are entangled. You then place his hand on your tank valve where you feel one of the entanglements. He removes the shears from his harness and begins cutting away the fishing line as you place your hand back on the carabiner, giving your tender a one pull, stating that you are okay. When the backup diver is done with the tank valve area, he again clasps your hand. You give another circular entanglement signal and place his hand on your knees. The procedure is repeated. The next time he clasps your hand you move a few feet to check that you are free and squeeze his hand three times telling him you are okay and no longer need him. He heads back towards shore with his tender taking up the slack. Your tender asks if you are okay (one pull), you respond (one pull), and you are sent back on your search pattern.
Sounds pretty simple and logical right? Well, unbelievably over 90% of dive teams do not have a practiced, pre-planned black-water contingency procedures. Simple common sense is too often a rarity in the dive industry. Let us see what would happen to you in the same situation if your team did not have a practiced contingency plan. Since the majority of teams have only one "help" signal we will use that in this scenario.
Entanglement hazards can come in many forms and should be considered when planning the most efficient type of search pattern to use. Solo-diver-tender-directed vertical box searches work well for full grass.
You realize you are entangled and stop to solve the problem. The tender does not understand why you stopped and gives you an, "are you okay" signal. You return the signal even though you're not really sure. You continue to try to disentangle yourself, when the tender, still confused, gives you another are you okay signal. You decide you can't do this by yourself and become frustrated that you have to give the I need the backup diver now! signal. You give the signal. "Oh God," your tender says, "something is wrong, he gave the emergency signal, send in the backup diver. Hurry!" The backup tender rushes to help the diver get in the water. The diver grabs on your tether line and starts swimming head first down the line. He forgot to fully burp his dry suit so he is having trouble getting down. He starts to kick harder, which increases his breathing and buoyancy. You are now getting jerked forward and deeper into the entanglement. You hope there aren't any hooks in this mass of fishing line tying you up.
The backup tender pulls him up and yells, "get the air out of your dry suit!" He does, and re-grabs your line and swims to you. In his haste, he accidentally let's go of the line when he performed a valsalva maneuver. The line floats and he can't see anything, so he has to re-surface to re-find your line. Finally, after three and a half minutes he reaches you, and by this time both your breathing rates have quadrupled.
Suddenly you feel something all over your head, chest, arms. He has no idea of what your problem is so he is feeling around your body to "identify the problem." At least you hope it is your backup diver . His elbow hits your mask and almost knocks it off. You reach up to try to grab his hands and he gets spooked and backs away. Both your air consumption rates triple. You try to grab his hands to put them on your tank valve, but he keeps moving around. If only...
If only you had a practiced contingency plan! This scenario is not much different than if you were entangled in a wreck or under the ice where a silt out can occur. So what is an effective, safe, plan? Walt Butch Hendrick used his UDT Navy Training to design the following blackwater contingency plan that can be used between divers whenever communication systems are not used or working.
In the last 10 years our students logged 9000 dives during our programs and out of all those dives never, did a diver require air. Never, was a diver in an immediate or life-threatening situation. Never was a 4+4+4 signal necessary. In most cases, entangled divers solve the problem themselves in a short period of time. In less than 4% of dives, a backup diver is requested to assist with an entanglement or a snagged tether line.
Why three signals instead of one?
Signal systems that only have one signal for help:
- Lack anyway of letting the tender know whether this is a simple entanglement problem, or a real life and death emergency.
- Topside personnel are likely to treat the unknown problem as very serious, significantly increasing everyone's stress levels.
- The greater the stress, the less chance the backup diver will make it to the primary diver. Stress causes mistakes, ear problems, panic, equipment problems, etc. (For that reason there should always be a 90% ready diver to quickly replace a failing backup diver. )
- Cause divers to wait until the entanglement is a more serious problem before giving the signal.
- Cause topside confusion when the diver stops moving to handle a problem.
No other rescue protocols, no other low or no visibility activity has only one signal or code for help or a problem. A large section of the public safety dive industry shows it's continual short cutting and lack of common sense. Lifeguard Systems has been teaching this three signal contingency system for over 20 years to thousands of divers world wide - it works! The U.S. Navy uses a similar system with much success.
What is a contingency strap?A contingency strap, secured into the backup diver's harness carabineer, can be snapped into the primary diver's tether line when the backup is called for. This strap has several important advantages:
If the backup diver needs to manage a problem behind the diver, he snaps his contingency strap's carabiner directly into the primary diver's carabiner and releases the quick-release in the middle of the strap. The backup diver can then move safely to where the problem is. When he is done he returns to the primary diver's hand that is holding up the other end of the strap and the backup diver re-connects. (See the pink strap remaining on the backup diver's harness that re-connects into the pink strap held by the primary diver. If you are asking why not use a longer strap that would not require this disconnect procedure, think about two things - blackwater and the primary diver's throat.
Backup divers should not hold on to the primary diver's tether line because it is likely that the tether line will be yanked on and pulled by an anxious, stressed, backup diver hurrying to reach the primary diver. This yanking and pulling can increase the entanglement and might even injure the primary diver. We have had many teams tell us they make a circle with their fingers and thereby never pull on the tether line, but when we throw an unexpected need assistance now call, more often than not, the circled fingers become a strong grip on the line. Remember, stress can increase buoyancy for a variety of reasons.
If the backup diver must use a hand to maintain contact with the primary diver's tether line, then the backup diver becomes a one-handed diver. When one of our own is in trouble we want the backup to have both hands free to equalize and adjust buoyancy during the descent, communicate and reassure the primary diver, and handle the presenting problems (i.e. entanglement, injury, entrapment, low or out-of-air etc.). Without a contingency strap, if the backup, for whatever reason, looses hold of the primary's tether line in no or low visibility water, the backup must surface and swim back to the tenders to regain hold of the line. This delay can make a big difference in the outcome of the assistance or rescue.
The backup diver brings the primary diver back to shore after untangling him.
If both the primary diver and tender were following proper procedure, the primary tether line could become wrapped around a tree limb or other object. When the backup comes to this obstruction, they simply disconnect, go to the other side and re-connects into the tether line. When the primary diver is reached, the backup first makes sure the primary is not entangled in anyway. Then the backup connects the contingency strap directly into the primary's harness carabiner, and cuts the tether line. They then make a direct ascent to the surface together. Without the strap, the primary is no longer tethered once the tether line is cut, and no backup can 100% guarantee not to let go of the primary diver during the cutting, ascent, and surface swim.
A contingency strap has a quick release clip in the middle of the strap, which allows the backup to quickly get away from the primary diver, if for some reason that becomes necessary. The clips also allow the backup to disconnect and move around the primary diver to deal with tank entanglements. Once the job is completed, the backup can re-connect to the other half of the contingency strap.
Diver to Tender
Blacked-out divers and tenders practice the contingency hand signals and procedures on land before working with them in blackwater. Primary divers give the "entanglement" hand signal and put the backup diver's hand directly on the entanglement area.
2+2+2 I am entangled and okay. I am stopping to handle it myself, but ready the backup diver.
3+3+3 I have a problem, but am okay. I need assistance, send the backup diver.
4+4+4+4+4+4+.... I AM NOT OKAY, I NEED IMMEDIATE ASSISTANCE!!! - continual sets of 4 pulls tells shore the diver is still alive and needs help.
Backup and Primary Diver
The primary diver keeps his hand on his harness carabiner for the backup diver to immediately find it. The backup diver comes down and clasps hands with the primary diver who then tells the backup what is wrong.
The primary diver makes a circle with the backup diver's hand to signal that he is entangled.
Big circular motion - I am entangled here - indicate where the entanglement is by putting the backup diver on it. The entanglement location information helps prevent backup diver entanglement. Without such information, the backup can become entangled in the same entanglement as the primary.
Tap backup's hand on primary's chest - I am injured here - indicate the injury location. The backup diver now knows to proceed very gently and cautiously to prevent injuring self and further injuring the primary diver.
Tap backup diver's hand to primary's second stage - I am already on my pony bottle, I need more air. The backup passes off their pony bottle to the primary diver. They then place the primary's hands back on their carabiner and gives it three squeezes I am leaving but I am coming right back. The backup goes back to their tender who puts another pony bottle on them and hands them a full 80 cu ft cylinder with a regulator. The backup returns to the primary diver, hands them the 80 cu ft contingency cylinder, and clasps hands with them to receive communication. With 80 cu ft of air, there is plenty of time to handle the entanglement, entrapment, or injury problem preventing the diver from surfacing.
The backup diver surfaces after passing off his pony bottle to the entangled primary diver in need of air. The tender replaces his pony bottle and then hands him the 80 cu ft contingency bottle to take back down.
These simple signals and procedures can be adapted for any type of low or no visibility diving. Without a contingency plans, no one belongs diving in blackwater.
Lifeguard Systems has laminated tender and diver signal cards and a Blackwater Contingency Audiovisual available.
Safe Diving Always! And remember, When the Job is done you have to go Home!™
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