By Andrea Zaferes
Seven United States-based public safety diving training agencies came together in an unprecedented round-table meeting at the Diving Equipment Manufacturing Association (DEMA) show in Orlando, Florida, in November 2011, to form the Water Response Training Council (WRTC). This new council's charter is to improve the safety of public safety divers and consumers through the development of minimum training standards. The following agencies are founding members of the new council: Dive Rescue International, (DRI), Emergency Response Diving International (ERDI), International Association of NItrox and Technical Divers (IANTD), Lifeguard Systems (LGS), Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), Public Safety Diving Association (PSDA), and U.S. Water Rescue.
WRTC was established to meet the growing concerns regarding a lack of national standards for public safety diving (PSD) training certification agencies. PSD is partially exempt from Occupational Health and Safety Administration requirements, and National Fire Protection Association standards are not mandatory, hence training agencies have no standards to hold them accountable. In the past 10 years, there has been a steady increase in the number of training agencies with varying degrees of standards.
This diversity in standards is evident in the criteria for certifying PSD instructors. Some agencies require only that a sport diving instructor pay a fee; they then are given books and instructor certification. They do not have to attend PSD or instructor training. These instructors are "certified" to teach dive teams in rivers, under ice, in black-water debris-covered bottoms, and so on.
At the other end of the spectrum is an agency standard that requires a 60 to 90-hour instructor preparatory home-study program, followed by a 120-hour instructor training program, followed by interning in at least 12 three and a half-day PSD training programs before instructors are certified to teach courses that issue technician-level PSD certification.
Of serious concern is the recent move of the recreational dive industry into the PSD community. The sport diving industry has an estimated drop-out rate of 80 percent. Instead of working to teach better dive classes to keep already certified divers diving, they continually look to open new markets. About 15 years ago, the sport dive industry went after the senior market to teach retirees, who they believed might have the money to spend. About 10 years ago, they lowered the certification age to start certifying children to become divers. Now, they are moving full steam ahead to flood the PSD community with sport diving instructors-turned PSD instructors.
We have been receiving phone calls from teams asking for help. Teams that had been trained by PSD certification agencies for 20 or more years are now being pushed to get their training from the local sport dive store's instructor, who has been telling the fire department chief, "You can save money and time by hiring me. I can do the class in less time and for less money."
The teams that have been forced to make this switch have seen a serious drop in safety standards. We received several desperate phone calls, for example, from a career firefighter in the Northeast telling us how the dive team's captain, who is also a local sport diving instructor, certified the team to do PSD ice diving. To our horror, he described how this instructor put divers under the ice tethered with quick-release snap shackles and had a backup diver without any tether! Quick-release snap shackles have no business under the ice: Divers should be secured with locking carabiners with duct tape over the lock mechanism. Allowing a backup diver in the hole with no tether is beyond grossly negligent. Lines were tended by firefighters lacking even basic tender certification. These are just a few of a long list of serious safety issues he relayed to us.
Other teams are telling us that they are being taught their backup air,
their pony bottles, are not necessary. They are being moved from the professional mode of solo-tethered-tender-directed diving to the less safe and less effective diver-directed buddy diving. Sport diving instructors have no experience with a surface support system for solo-tethered divers. That comes from military and commercial diving. Tenders and other surface support are the absolute keys to diver safety.
It is our belief that you cannot learn how to become a safe or effective PSD instructor by reading books or taking a two-day class. And, being a member of a dive team does not qualify you to become a PSD instructor by either of these methods. Just think about it. Can a firefighter suddenly become a fire instructor by paying a fee and reading books? Even if he could, that is different from what happens in the dive industry because firefighting has national and local standards. A firefighter in North Dakota will not be that much different from a firefighter in North Carolina. Both will have standards of personal protective equipment (PPE), turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatus. In the dive industry, there are no PPE standards. One team can be in shortie wetsuits with standard face masks and sport diving octopuses or, worse, Air IIs (a second mouthpiece mounted to a buoyancy compensator inflator hose) while the neighboring team dives in hazmat dry suits, full face masks, with 19-cubic-foot pony bottles as backup air.
The North Dakota and North Carolina firefighters both had to achieve a minimum number of skills to meet interior criteria. We have met too many divers with a variety of different PSD certifications (moving water, ice, for example) without ever having gotten wet; they attended the entire class but were not made to dive. A sheriff's team in a neighboring county recently received certification for hull searching, for which they were awarded a grant. They were told they were now able to dive in the local river that can move at speeds greater than three knots despite the fact that the only environments in which they dove was in a pool and in a quarry. They never experienced an overhead environment, yet now they are certified to search the hulls of 400-foot-long ships.
Another major difference between firefighting and fire diving is that the former has a history of experience and learning from literally tens of thousands of fires, if not hundreds of thousands. Unsafe practices can, therefore, be recognized and corrected. Fire divers, on the other hand, might not see more than 0-6 dive calls annually. Hence, unsafe practices are allowed to stay on and become part of commonly used procedures. When a diver fatality occurs, the real causes are rarely recognized.
In the past year, we have had numerous sport diving instructors take one class from us and then tell us that they can teach everything that we can teach--skills that took 20 or more years to learn and develop. And that's what they are telling and selling to fire and police chiefs.
We hope WRTC will be able to set at least some minimum instructor and training standards to stop at least the most egregious of safety issues. To fire and police chiefs, we say, "Please be an educated consumer." Chiefs and dive teams, "Beware."
The council, which met again in March, has been working on the by-laws and standards. This will take some time as we are limited to where and when we can all get together.
Andrea Zaferes is vice president of Lifeguard Systems and NAUI/ACUC course director.