Public Safety Diving and Firefighting: The Parallels of Self-Rescue


Today’s fire service is a multidisciplined operation—fire suppression, emergency medical services, hazardous materials, technical rescue, and so on. Shortsighted firefighters will say that these demands compromise our abilities and time and that we should focus on our title mission of fire. I agree in part, but the simple fact is, fire gave our profession the start, but commitment to service will keep our future bright. Exploring new disciplines will enable us to apply the knowledge we acquired from outside our traditional operations to our fundamental fire duties.

In 2009, my department added a truck company to the dive team station. I saw an opportunity to try a specialty I had not yet experienced. The dive team primarily trained on duty, a nice compromise that permitted members to remain active and have time at home with the family. I grew up on the rivers and in the ocean of Northern California. I get at least one surf trip in a year, and I love to swim. As soon as I arrived at the new company, I signed up for the next Public Safety Diver (PSD) class with a confidence that only ignorance can bring. I had no clue as to what I was getting into.

Public safety diving—fully encapsulated dry suit diving, bulky weight harnesses, black water, looking for weapons or bodies—could not be further from the picturesque world of SCUBA we often associate with diving. The environment for PSD is an immediately dangerous to life and health atmosphere. We cannot conduct open water dives in a manner that would meet the rigors of National Fire Protection Association 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, for a live burn. A walk-through is not possible; every dive is a “live” operation. We are always underwater, weighted, and dependent on self-rescue first. There are no windows from which to bail. When ice diving, getting to the surface may not even save you. Very rarely are any landmarks available to help with orientation, and the only tools you have with you are senses (compromised by the environment, equipment, and stress), a couple of knives, and your training.

I made it through the first week of class without issue. Swim test, basic skills, and all dives in the local indoor pool went smoothly; my comfort in the gear was growing. That all changed in a split second on our first day in the open water when I received a lesson in the importance of mind over body that I will never forget.


In our area, all dives are conducted in a hazmat-rated dry suit and a full face mask, to prevent any exposure and make us “comfortable.” The unintended downside to this is that we are fully encapsulated and comfortable so that when changes occur, it is quite a shock. One of the required PSD skills test is a mask removal and transition to secondary air in open water. When I broke the seal of my full face piece in the complete darkness of the 48°F pond we were diving in, I was instantly overwhelmed. The cold water hitting my face sparked a reaction to breathe that took every fiber of my being to suppress. My eyes were shut, but they wanted to burst open. My mouth was closed, but it pained to spring for an inspiratory gasp. My legs begged to be used as propulsion to the surface, and the few seconds it took to find my secondary air supply and bring it to my lungs felt like hours.

In my years of responding to fires and accidents, treating patients, and training with other special teams, I had never been pushed to this point of discomfort. Not for one second before that day had I experienced a situation where a learned skill would have to win an all-out war with the response of my mind and body. Up to that point, I was ignorant of the need to learn about our senses and responses with such a deep respect and education, not just to improve our ability to thrive but also to ensure we can survive.

“Cold shock” is the term for the body’s reaction to the surprise exposure to frigid water. This is a survival response designed to protect us by instantly filling our lungs with air at the last opportunity as we plunge into cold water from the surface. That same survival response will fill your lungs instantly with water if it is triggered when you are already submerged. During the technical review process for this article, it was brought to my attention that proper training prior to the open water dive and acclimation to cold water in predive preparation could have reduced some of the shock. (See “Foundation Basic Skills of Public Safety Diving.”)

There are tools and exercises that may decrease surprise; however, time limitations and the fact that these responses are engrained through evolution make it impossible to completely eliminate the response in real-world emergency operations. Be it searching a lake bottom under the winter ice or pushing down a hallway on the nozzle, when that cold water or sign of impending flashover hits your face and the body instantly initiates a survival response, you must consider whether it is a survival response you welcome or a response you must suppress.

It was this experience, the realization that this involuntary response will never go away, and the recognition of parallels to fireground operations that prompted me to dive into the mind. Over the past two years, I have added books like Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales to my reading list and reviewed many of the citations in The Combat Position: Achieving Firefighter Readiness by Christopher Brennan. I have tested personal theories of my mind and senses in training and on calls. I am taking notes from articles that dissect the brain’s response to near-miss situations, not just the incident. All of this has made me a more cerebral firefighter and has improved my ability to thrive on the fireground as much as elevate my fitness level.

When you start to really evaluate the operations we perform, there are many times where we must suppress our body’s natural responses and senses to press on with our mission—running into a burning house and keeping a mask on your face despite the fact that air supply is dwindling, for example. Most of the time, you do this without a true awareness. The risk in the lack of acknowledgement is it may only be a temporary suppression, not the lasting or continuous exercise in control necessary to keep you alive. Many of the concepts that make being a PSD a relatively safe assignment should be applied to our operations inside fire buildings. This is not a new idea. The term “smoke diver” is age-old, and connections have been made in the past between stress and the dangers of our interior operations.


A single-family dwelling may be seen as a home, cozy and familiar. A lake in the summer time is inviting and may trigger thoughts of play from your childhood. These subconscious associations are dangerous and may be the frame called on by an involuntary response when operating in a fire in that same home or searching that lake bottom for a victim.

PSDs have been found deceased with their quick-release weight belts still on because the “weight belt ditch” is the last skill trained on. When it is not rehearsed as a primary escape method, the diver will inherently try everything else first because he is only a few feet under the surface of a summer lake. When the final seconds arrive, fine motor skills and cognitive thinking may not be present for execution of task. We have read reports of firefighters killed standing up and attempting to run out during a fire or pulling off their masks prematurely. It is entirely possible that these responses are the result of being lulled into a certain comfort by these associations or a lack of practice in psychological exercises to control survival responses.

We must briefly pause in our approach to a fire as a reminder that what we see is only the surface and that evolution has programmed our minds and bodies to avoid these dangerous situations before we dive into operations.

In photo 1, this diver sits on the bank of a small lake on a summer afternoon. He is resting. The sun warms him, and he can see for miles. Just off the shore, a paddle boat with a family cruise by joyously. It is simple for the diver to separate the surface from his operation which lies below. He is well aware that this environment is not the same as that in which he will soon be working. It will be cold, dark, disorienting, and nonsupportive of human life (no air). Add to this that duties will be flat out hard work during which he must actively be processing information to remain in control of his thoughts and reactions.

(1) Photo by author.
(1) Photo by author.

Photo 2 shows a small home in North Denver. It is older and was built with solid materials and good craftsmanship. As firefighters, we instantly know that it is “safer” than lightweight construction. You read in articles that you can easily determine the building’s layout from the outside and that since the footprint of the structure is small, you are never more than a few feet from a way out.

(2) Photo by David McGrail, Denver (CO) Fire Department.
(2) Photo by David McGrail, Denver (CO) Fire Department.

I will tell you that I would have made all these statements, too, before I realized that this is only the surface. As soon as we cross the threshold of the front porch, we are going under. Our working environment is now hot, dark, disorienting, and nonsupportive of life. In addition, our operations demand hard physical work and continuous alertness; processing of information is a necessity to remain in control of our thoughts and reactions.

Denver (CO) Fire Department Lieutenant Rich Montoya lost his life performing a search in that small home. He was a seasoned officer at a busy company and was near retirement when he answered his last alarm. In the final report, it was determined that Montoya’s death was a result of cardiac arrest. We will never know when that arrest occurred or the exact conditions that surrounded his final seconds. If you combine the unassuming structure with the experience of Montoya, you can find a message that is clear: The view from the surface does not accurately depict the hostile, potentially fatal environment in which you will be operating.


We are visual creatures. Nature intended us to navigate this world by sight. However, in times of poor visibility, our drive to see can incapacitate us. The fight to see can create such a demand for our attention that we will not process cues discovered by our other senses. Be it in the silt bottom of a retention pond or in a master bedroom on the floor above the fire, when we just catch a glimpse of something, our natural reliance on sight becomes a distraction. We so desire to make sense of what we see that our mind can stall our activity—i.e., “What was that?” When conducting a primary search, our firefighter brain knows our environment will challenge us; however, the automatic responses of our senses and mind may not be listening.

It takes our eyes about nine minutes for the rods and cones to fully adjust to a single drastic change in light.1 If we are moving from light to dark, room to room, our aperture is never truly getting dialed in, and this wreaks havoc on our brain. I learned very early in doing search patterns as a diver that the sooner I stopped fighting to see and closed my eyes, the better my search got. My sense of touch became my guide, and my anxiety was reduced. I began to feel that I was judging direction and distance better. On occasion, I would open my eyes to see if conditions had changed; however, I made a conscious decision for a secondary sense to take the lead.

My mind and body made the quick adjustment without issue. They just weren’t going to do it on their own. This is not much different from working with a thermal imaging camera: We have to recognize limitations and potential failures and ensure that we keep our other senses engaged enough so that we can make a quick transition should we lose battery power, experience a catastrophic event, or just even set the tool down for a minute and not be able to find it.


In diving, there is a mantra: “If you have air, you don’t have a problem.” It is a simple reminder that when you start to lose control of your thoughts or orientation or even become entangled, you begin a mental process of evaluation that starts with your life (air pressure). For firefighters in a building fire, this is not totally accurate because there is the risk of thermal insult, but the sentiment can help reduce anxiety. If you check your gauge and realize you have air, this profound positive may help throw panic out of the driver’s seat, and rational thought, troubleshooting, and planning can resume.

The gauge as a tool is only effective if we know what it is telling us. Today, technological and policy changes have brought heads-up displays and rules of air management to help us avoid trouble. However, there is still no better preparation than finding your air consumption rate. These tools help us learn from real-world experience how long we can expect a specific volume of air to last. Firefighters can experiment by using the controlled conditions of a drill area, a burn building, or even a gym to establish an average consumption across several performances. By performing simulated tasks at the intensity of fireground operations, you can start to create an understanding of how a reading on a gauge translates to your ability to perform. If you find that your air consumption rate is not where you want it to be, you can use a fitness program, breathing techniques, or mental exercises to improve your time on air. Personal protective equipment workouts with functional exercise should be a regular part of your training if for no other reason than that comfort in the equipment will improve your effectiveness and reduce anxiety. If there is concern about this impacting your state of readiness, work out after your shift for a half hour in gear and with a spare self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

PSDs use dive tables to approximate the effects of repeated dives; however, these tables are not designed to reflect the factors associated with the work to which firefighters are subject. Repetitive dive tables do not account for any change in air consumption. As a committed firefighter, if you truly seek to understand your fireground capacity, you should evaluate your second bottle air consumption. The second bottle work period will have a dramatic impact on your air consumption. Elevated core temperature, heart rate, physical and mental fatigue—all create a higher demand on your cardiorespiratory system. Maintaining a dive log is a requirement for PSDs—dive type, depth, duration, and comments like visibility. This quickly becomes a history of your performance in these environments and a true gauge. I think that there is no question that we would benefit from logging SCBA activity, duration, and comments about our experiences on air.

From this history of performance, you will have an expanded knowledge of your abilities. On arrival, you can base a decision for action on your known work period. The day will come when you are at the back of the truck changing out a bottle and the chief will ask, “Can you go back in?” You will be able to answer with confidence either way, not with the unwavering yes, which historically has created victims among our own.


In black water dives, reference points at times are completely absent in any direction. Without landmarks in a dive, you look to your gauges, air, depth, time, and compass; sometimes, the black water eliminates even these resources. What do you have to fall back on in the fire building when you lose your landmarks and become disoriented? Maybe the question should be, have you really lost all your landmarks, or are you failing to recognize and record subtle cues? Consider this passage from Deep Survival:

Until about a half century ago, there was a widespread belief among scientists that people had some sort of inherent sense of direction. The observation that certain peoples around the world were especially skilled at navigation in the absence of obvious cues was evidence for a magnetic sense. The Australian Aborigines and the Pulwat Islanders in the South Pacific were examples of peoples who seemed inexplicably good at navigating. But when they studied those peoples more closely, researchers realized that they had simply been trained from childhood to pick up very subtle cues from the environment and use them the way anyone else would use landmarks to find a route. Even those people can and do get lost. And after a half a century of research, it turns out that their greatest skill lay in keeping an up-to-date mental map of their environment.”2

If you have flooring under you, you have a landmark. Keeping the mind active will keep rational thought in the driver’s seat. Flooring type can be an indicator of your location. Even if it isn’t (a fully hardwood house), your mind found something familiar; immediately, doubt and fear take one step back. Let me walk you through the internal process of updating a mental map with a stream of thought.


I am a little turned around right now, and I need to get myself together. Check my gauge, I’ve got plenty of air. Find a landmark, I can tell I am on a tile floor.

Self: I have plenty of air. I can make a move; if that doesn’t help, then I will let someone know.

In the majority of our fires, a wall is just a few moves away in any direction, so get to a wall, stop, and process again: Air, Landmark/Location, Self.

Air: My gauge says I am at 2200.

Landmark/Location: Now I am against a wall, on a tile floor; it took me three moves to get here. So, I am in a decent size room with a tile floor. (In most cases, this now eliminates a bathroom or hallway.) My guess is this is a living room or kitchen area. I am feeling better now that I am putting things together.

Self: I will make a couple of moves down this wall; hopefully, I will find one more piece of evidence, furniture, cabinet, or window.

Two moves later, you hit a group of chairs and a table, and you swing your hand and contact another wall. You now know you are in an off corner in a dining room. (An off corner is away from a main traffic area.) Composure, subtle clues, a few moves, and your mental map is now up-to-date. This may be enough information to get you back on track with your operation, oriented to your egress. At minimum, you will be able to provide an improved Mayday report.


To be honest with you, I do not want to find a body on the bottom of a lake. When visibility is next to zero, pond water and grasses waving on the bottom begin to play tricks with your mind. You start to consider coming face-to-face at any moment with a bloated drowning victim. The whole operation hinges on your next decision. You are underwater, the shore support team can’t see what you are doing, and you really do not want this image that is creeping around in your head to become reality. You could just close your eyes, kick around for a few minutes, and call it good. This isn’t a rescue anyway. Who would know? If you are committed to mission, you would know.

When I was a young volunteer, I was told that a real firefighter does what is right even when no one is watching. That is another way of saying that the root of service is being accountable. We must decide what is controlling our actions—our conscious mind or our fears. If you are afraid to find a victim during a search, you will be more likely to dismiss that lump on the floor as a pile of clothes. If you believe a shortcut is an option, that will become the path you take. You must be committed to the mission long before the call drops because in the face of challenge and environmental pressures, the deck is stacked against you.

The question we often hear is, “What’s in your pockets?” This is a fun easy topic because it is about tools that have no personal connection beyond preference. The question I would like to see in every forum is, “What’s in you?” This is what commits us to the mission—that sense of pride in me to be my best in the most difficult times—the love I feel when I open my locker in the morning and see pictures of my family and drawings by my children to start my shift. We have sworn it is our duty to provide service to our neighbors and our mission. Being accountable for that duty is what can replace fear, shut down shortcuts, and save the lives of both others and our own.

“The last stage of dying is acceptance; the first step in survival is total commitment.” (2) The paradigm shift for you or the fire service as a whole may not be found within our walls. Challenge yourself by looking beyond our standard operations and texts for parallels. By reading this magazine, you should believe that the key to improving safety, fireground efficiency, and the chances of those who call us rest on our drive to improve. Our emotional responses are deeply engrained through evolution. Our cognitive thought processes are not only inferior in “time on the job” but also speed of response and power of influence. Accept the reality, and rise to the challenge. Reflective fabric, helmet brackets in apparatus, and a new standard operating procedure are passive. A sharp mind, fit body, and full heart are the active components of change and some day may also serve as your survival kit.


1. Adelson, E. H., “Saturation and adaptation in the rod system,” Vision Res. 1982:22, 1299-1312.

2. Gonzales, L. Deep Survival. W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.

BRIAN BRUSH is a lieutenant at West Metro Fire Rescue in Lakewood, Colorado, assigned to Company 8. He began his fire service career in 1996 in Northern California as a volunteer. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire and emergency services administration and an associate degree in paramedicine.

Foundation Basic Skills of Public Safety Diving1


Diving, whether it is recreational, public safety, commercial, or military, has a set of basic skills with which divers need to become confident and reflexive. Fifteen or 20 years ago, entry-level diver training included at least 11 to 17 hours of time in confined water learning and practicing skills using increased task loading to achieve the desired learning outcome so that divers would know how to cope with such issues as a mask being accidentally knocked off, zero visibility, equipment failure, and entanglement. Today, the average student obtaining open water diver certification barely has two to three hours of physically practicing skills in the water, as opposed to listening to instructors read objectives, watching instructor demonstrations, and waiting their turn.


Academic training has also gone by the wayside. Instead of 11 to 17 hours of instruction face-to-face with an instructor, students read a book, watch a DVD, and can use e-learning options. Final written exams can even be taken on line. Instead of the standard training over six to eight weeks, today’s dive students can be certified in a weekend. Based on my 30 years of experience in the dive industry, it is my opinion that students cannot achieve strong basic, reflexive skills or realistic reflexive contingency skills within this time period. Repetition with task loading is required for skills to become confidently reflexive.

The nearly extinct “minimum number of course hours” standard forced instructors to have students engage the Law of Exercise and perform skills repeatedly even after the students performed the skills correctly. Students were challenged with games and problem-solving sessions that combined skills and created realistic task loading, as is still done in firefighting training.

Today’s diving instruction includes little or no task loading and avoids stressing students at all costs. Some certifying agencies that once had a minimum swim distance as a prerequisite for taking entry level (open water) diving training now accept students who “demonstrate comfort in the water.” I have heard far too many instructors say, “You don’t have to really know how to swim to be a diver.” And it is exceedingly rare today for instructors to make sure divers can perform skills such as mask clearing, air sharing, and regulator retrievals mid-water, where these skills will most likely need to be performed during dives. Skills are practiced only on the bottom or on the surface. And, it is rare when a certification agency mandates that entry-level divers be taught “hands on” how to use the cutting tool they are told they need to purchase.

The skill of being able to keep breathing and staying calm during an unexpected, accidental mask dislodgement is absolutely critical for diver safety, as Brian Brush points out in this article. Yet, today’s dive instructors are not allowed to dislodge a student’s mask, even in a warm water pool. Today, only students can flood their own masks, and they can do it only in a preplanned, very controlled manner. Two decades ago, entry-level divers went through confined-water, problem-solving sessions that included instructors ripping off their masks, turning off their air, and pulling off their fins. Students confidently solved these problems with well-practiced self-rescue skills and buddy assistance. Today, certifying agencies do not include these problem-solving sessions in their curriculums—some outright forbid them. Consequently, the first time divers face unexpected shocks of cold water in their face when their masks are dislodged is when no trained dive leaders are present with a physical hand on them to ensure that they can survive the problem.

An increasing number of recreational diving certifying agencies are looking at the public safety market in search of new sources of revenue. Likewise, there is an increasing number of relatively new “public safety diving” certification agencies willing to sell a “public safety diver (PSD) instructor certification” to recreational diving instructors without any PSD instructor training—pay a fee, receive training materials, and you are now “certified” to teach your local fire department how to search in that black, debris-filled, contaminated, moving water river.

The increasingly minimal standards of foundation basic skills sport divers have been receiving are being transferred to divers who want to become fire and law enforcement PSDs. There is no comparison between diving midwater with a dive master in water with 100-foot visibility in the Bahamas and diving on the bottom of a one-knot, debris-filled, contaminated, black water river in Newark, New Jersey. Another reason this lack of sufficient basic skills is especially hazardous for PSD divers is that PSDs are less likely to say, “I’m not comfortable diving in this environment; I’m not going in,” than are sport divers, who are more likely to abort dives.

The rationale given for issuing PSD instructor certifications without any PSD instructor training is that the recreational instructor must be on a public safety diving team and must know enough about public safety diving to teach it. But, as there are no national mandatory standards in the United States for PSD, we do not know what sport instructors know about PSD training or what standards and procedures are being used by the dive team of which they are members. In addition, there is no system in place to assess these criteria.

Another issue is the lack of standards regarding maximums. For example, graduates of Firefighter 1 training are not certified to work in the interior of high-rise buildings, nor are they certified to perform hazmat, confined space, or other more advanced operations. This is true nationally. Yet, in the public safety diving arena, there are little to no standards regarding maximum current speeds, level of water contamination, amount or type of debris on the bottom, and so on. Once you are certified as a “PSD instructor,” you can teach students in your local river moving at two knots and in a pond with 12 feet of thick algae, as well as teach fire divers how to work with submerged vehicles, despite the fact that the instructors have had no specific training in these environments. The fire service would never let a Firefighter 1 instructor teach high-rise firefighting if that instructor never had any high-rise training.

Public safety diving is one of the safest duties in the fire service if divers and tenders have effective training, sufficient regular drill time, and the necessary equipment. Firefighters still have a possibility of falling through a roof or being exposed to the hazmats and explosiveness of an unexpected meth lab, no matter how good their training, drills, standard operating procedures (SOPs), and equipment. Well-trained public safety dive teams, on the other hand, can plan for everything that can go wrong; they can look at a water site and evaluate whether this is a “go” or a “no go” operation. The large “but,” though, is that if teams do not have sufficient training, drill time, equipment, and safe SOPs, water can pose a greater threat than fire.

To protect those in public safety diving and those about to begin this training, you must be an educated consumer and know what foundation basic skills are required. I recommend using the experience Brush presented in this article to become better educated about the basic skills necessary to stay safe as a PSD. What Brush experienced when his mask seal was broken should not have happened. If the following procedures are used, divers should be protected against what happened to Brush; the incident could have ended far worse if he didn’t have such solid character.


It is critical that divers be able to confidently continue breathing calmly when their standard or full face mask is dislodged in cold water.2 Typical public safety diving environments, namely zero visibility with debris-covered bottoms, pose the greatest risk for experiencing unexpected mask dislodgements. Strong currents can increase the risk of mask flooding.

Divers who do not have blocks3 must remove their full face masks underwater to access their pony or a contingency bottle of air. The golden rule of compressed air diving is to never hold your breath; a three- to four-foot ascent in the water column when holding a full breath can result in lung-overexpansion injuries. A mask dislodgement is likely to result in a gasp reflex in unprepared divers, which will likely lead to aspiration of water and possibly a laryngospasm reflex,4 which can then result in a serious lung overexpansion injury if the diver ascends.

Panicked divers have a tendency to rip off their masks and spit out their regulators. If they’re diving with full face masks, then ripping a mask off means losing the primary air source as well. In most cases, panic results from poor training and not enough drill-time skill maintenance. Ripping off the mask can also result in drowning and fatal lung overexpansion injuries.

Training to Prevent Ripping Off a Mask and to Prevent Experiencing Stress or Panic if a Mask Is Purposefully Removed in Cold Water: The first step is to use the Law of Primacy and start entry-level training in the pool with students not wearing masks. If you are an instructor, follow these well-proven teaching procedures and techniques. If you are not an instructor, share this information with your instructor, and have a pool drill with your team to complete these skills.

The first pool session: Have students breathe on their regulators for at least 10 minutes with no mask as they learn to deflate and inflate their buoyancy compensators, to breathe with one- to two-second normal inhalations followed by four- to six-second gentle exhalations, and to just hang in the water without moving and be comfortable regardless of the positions their bodies. If students begin with no mask, then having their face and nose exposed to water while breathing underwater becomes natural—they will become reflexive mouth breathers when on scuba.

Next, weight students for neutral buoyancy as they continue without a mask so that they can gently sink to the bottom and gently slowly rise a little as they inhale the normal one- to two-second one pint of air. Then have the maskless students practice regulator removal and replacement while kneeling on the bottom and gently blowing bubbles whenever their regulators are not in their mouths. Next, up the ante: Ask maskless students to hold onto the wall and gently kick. Evaluate and correct their kicking skills, if necessary. Ask the students to kick harder so that their breathing rates increase and their mouth breathing skills become reflexive even during physical stress.

Have a rule that masks are not supposed to be removed unless the instructor says to remove them or if the divers are out of the water. Divers who are allowed to consistently pull off their masks when they surface become programmed to rip their masks off should they panic and remain nose breathers when in water. Masks belong on faces, not on foreheads or around necks, when divers are in the water.

The next step is to teach students mask-clearing techniques. Have them practice a couple of times with a fully flooded mask on the surface. Then have them descend three or so feet to the bottom while holding their mask. Ask them to don and then clear their masks a few times. Make sure the students breathe comfortably three times before donning the mask and with the mask flooded; then they can clear the mask and slowly surface. The key to mask clearing and comfortably surviving unexpected mask flooding is being able to breathe without a mask and with a flooded mask. Most instructors strictly follow the mask-clearing objectives in their agency’s standard: “remove, replace, and clear the mask.” Nowhere in that less than optimal objective does it say “breathe comfortably when the mask is off; breathe comfortably when the mask is on and flooded.” Hence, many divers learn to hold their breath when the mask is off and when it is flooded, with the result that if they can’t clear the mask quickly enough before feeling air starved, there will be an increased risk that they may panic, rip off their mask, and spit out their regulator.

Direct all the students to one side of the shallow end of the pool and toss their masks to the bottom of the other side of the shallow end of the pool. Have them slowly search for their masks and slowly surface only after they find their masks, and then slowly don and clear them.

By the end of these 60 to 90 minutes of breathing without a mask, breathing with a flooded mask, and performing other skills at the same time, these students are well on their way to being perfectly fine when their masks flood in cold water.

If students are allowed to experience breathing underwater for the first time while wearing masks, when those masks are removed later, the students will experience something “unnatural” and potentially stressful or even traumatic. This is because most of us are reflexive nose breathers, and the only reason nose breathers breathe through their mouths on scuba is that the mask prevents them from inhaling through their nose. Take that mask away, and nose breathers now feel water going up their nose, and they snort in water nasally. If you begin without a mask, you instantly learn that scuba means being strictly a mouth breather.

Facial acclimation: Even if your initial scuba class taught you how to be a reflexive mouth breather underwater, you still can experience a gasp reflex if your mask floods in cold water. To greatly reduce the risk of this gasping and ensuing panic, divers should remove their masks and breathe on their pony regulators with their heads submerged for one minute. If the water is too contaminated, they can do this in tubs filled with water carried in jugs. Tenders should document the divers’ breathing rate during this acclimation. If the rate is greater than 12 breaths per minute (bpm), the diver should be told to lengthen the exhalation to four to six seconds and repeat the acclimation until breathing is 12 or fewer bpm. Facial acclimation has four functions: It prepares facial tissue for unexpected immersion when a mask is dislodged, maintains the diver’s mouth-breathing skills, ensures that the bpm rates are safe to begin a search, and gives divers and tenders a minute to gather themselves to a calm state.

Use your pony regulator frequently: Surface on pony and perform out-of-air drills. Brush rightly pointed out that self-rescue skills need to be strong and reflexive. Accessing one’s pony bottle air if a full face mask is dislodged or if primary air is lost in another manner is one of the most important self-rescue skills. Without sufficient muscle memory and task-loading training, there is a significant chance that a diver will bolt to the surface rather than access the pony regulator should he lose the primary air source for whatever reason.

The pony regulator should be worn around the neck such that the divers need only tuck their chins to access the regulator mouthpiece. Next, the pony regulator needs to be accessed regularly. If divers perform the recommended three gear checks5 and facial acclimation prior to each dive, then divers access and use their pony regulator four times prior to every dive.

Next, to help prevent divers from bolting to the surface when they lose their masks or primary air source, you need to associate “out of air” with “access pony air” and associate “I want to surface now!” with “access pony air.” To do the former, I recommend performing out-of-air drills every time the team runs training or drill sessions. These drills should give divers the experience of having their primary air turned off, forcing them to calmly switch to pony air. The desired learning outcome is that “out of air” is no longer an emergency; it becomes merely a “nuisance” as long as the diver has a pony bottle.

Next, institute the procedure that divers should ascend on their pony bottles at the end of every training session and perhaps even every operational dive. Removing their masks and performing that life-saving self-rescue skill of going to one’s pony regulator at the end of each dive means that divers are practicing that critical self-rescue skill on every dive in addition to further strengthening their breathing-underwater-without-a-mask skill. Such training adds even greater comfort should a mask unexpectedly dislodge from the face in cold water and helps ensure that an out-of-air incident is merely an inconvenience and not an emergency.

If the water is too contaminated to remove a full face mask, then divers should be wearing a block and should switch to their pony air with the block prior to surfacing. Electronic communication hot microphones will not be damaged by removing a mask underwater, as is commonly believed. Air bubbles forced through the microphone membrane at depths greater than 20 feet could potentially damage the microphone. I have had divers remove their full face masks that were fitted with electronic communication systems underwater to switch to their pony air more than 1,000 times in the past 30 years with no ill effects to the communication systems.

• • •

Fire divers need to take responsibility for making sure they are prepared to enter the often hostile water environment to perform rescue or recovery operations. This requires high performance training and reflexive capabilities, like everything else in the fire service. PSDs need to question everything they are taught: What is the rationale and the in-water tested proof that a particular procedure or technique is safe and effective? Be highly critical, and do not accept things at face value.

ANDREA ZAFERES has been teaching and working with thousands of public safety, sport, and military divers with Lifeguard Systems since 1987.


1. Examples of recommended standards from Lifeguards Systems for a Level 1 PSD diver include the following maximums: 1-knot current, 50-foot depth with possible 10-foot extension, 20-minute dive time with possible 5-minute extension, and 125-foot tether length. Also: no working in the following environments: in or around submerged vehicles, under ice or other significant overhead environments, and in significant debris fields such as submerged standing trees or fallen bridge debris.

2. As water becomes colder, there is an increasing risk of panic and aspiration. Water less than 92°F can be perceived as cold. Lifeguard Systems performed an experiment in an 18-foot-deep tank with water that was approximately 80°F and found that almost 15 percent of certified divers demonstrated great stress when they performed a mask-removal skill.

3. A block is a gas-switching valve that allows divers to switch between the air in their primary cylinder and their pony bottle without removing their full face mask.

4. An involuntary breath hold that can last for more than a minute.

5. The diver checks fully assembled gear in the staging area. The tender checks the fully dressed diver in staging. The safety officer checks the fully dressed diver and tender at the demarcation line entrance to the operations zone.

No posts to display