DAN Fatality Workshop

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Posted by Ken Kurtis on April 12, 2010 at 15:59:13:

I was in Raleigh-Durham last week for a DAN-sponsored workshop dealing with dive fatalties and what we as an industry and you as diver can do to lower the numbers. (Diving is an incredibly "safe" sport with only about 90 fatalities per year of US & Canadian divers, which is what DAN tracks, out of an estimated 1-3 million active divers, doing an estimated 10-30 million dives per year.)

The L.A. area, where we actually have a very comprehensive infrastructure to deal with these tragedies, was well-represented with Karl Huggins from the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber, Gordon Boivin & Jim Pearson from the U.S. Coast Guard, Dave Carver from the L.A. County Sheriffs, and myself representing the L.A. County Corner (for whom Iím a forensic consultant). In addition, Duke University and DAN were well-represented, as were major training agencies (PADI, SSI, SDI/TDI, and BSAC - but surprisingly not NAUI), the U.S. Navy, other Coast Guard sectors, members of the scuba legal community, various other diving doctors, scuba investigators (Steve Barksy & Jeff Bozanic from the L.A. area), and other interested parties. Lots of brainpower and experience in the room.

Although the conference proceedings will be distilled and published down the road, there are two walk-always that I'd like to pass on to you now. Those deal with (1) Running out of air, and (2) Buddy separation.

Running out of air factored into roughly 25% of the dive fatalities. And itís simply the stupidest thing a diver can do. Thereís no logical reason for it. Absent a hose rupture (and there was no incident of that in any of the 900 fatalities in the database), running out of air is totally preventable. Itís something thatís literally in your hands as all you need to do is look at your pressure gauge and don't run your air supply down too low.

I always advise my divers to begin the ascent to your safety stop with a minimum of 500psi (more if you're deeper than 50 feet) and that you should surface at the end of your safety stop with no less than 300psi. I also teach my students to dive with the pressure gauge literally in their hands at all times. It encourages them to look at it more. Thereís nothing wrong with checking your gauge often but you can certainly not check it often enough. My rule of thumb is that if you've consumed more than 500psi since the last time you looked, you're not looking often enough.

The other major area dealt with buddy separation. First of all, realize that thereís nothing that can happen to you alone that can't happen to you with a buddy. However, you response options are certainly different with or without a buddy.

That being said, I'm amazed at the number of fatalities I've looked at where everything was seemingly fine up until the moment of separation and then, after the separation, something happened to one of the buddies that resulted in death. And while we discuss buddy separation issues in class, we may not offer any real-world practice of it. On top of that, because we drill into your heads the need to stay with your buddy and the dangers of diving alone, we may set up a little voice in the back of your head that starts screaming ďDanger!! Danger!!!Ē if you lose your buddy and rather than calmly responding to the situation and surfacing safely, some divers totally lose their cool (and their lives).

So we had some very good discussions about what we might do to emphasize this better and maybe even alter some training exercises (perhaps something as simple as having dive students do one lap around the pool all by themselves while the instructor observes from the surface) to better prepare divers to deal with this. Buddy separation happens, even to good buddy teams, but it certainly shouldn't be triggering a panic attack or costing divers their lives.

I thought it was a really productive three days and there were a lot of good ideas bandied back and forth. One thing you, as a diver, should know is that you've got a lot of the Big Brains in the dive industry caring about your well-being and really taking a good look at these issues and trying to find ways to help you deal better with the risks of diving. Itís a really safe sport (the fatality rate is on a par with jogging) but when things go wrong, because we're in a alien life-threatening environment, divers have to be able to make the right responses.

- Ken
Ken Kurtis
NAUI Instr. #5936
Owner, Reef Seekers Dive Co.
Beverly Hills, CA

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