ALERT DIVER, the prestigious and excellent publication of Divers Alert Network recently reached out to me with some questions about how I view dive safety. Establishing a culture of dive safety is of great importance to dive leaders and is central to Divers Alert Network’s mission. They’ll be sharing these thoughts and those of other experts in coming issues of their magazine.
ALERT DIVER: Recreational diving culture; what does it mean to you?
JILL HEINERTH: Sport diving is a community made up of many different subcultures. These small groups of divers are knitted together by their shop, club, charter operator or perhaps agency affiliation. Some of these tribes are known for their technical expertise, their great trips or safe operations. Others are tagged for aggression, cockiness or exclusivity. It’s like any other participation sport. People tend to congregate in smaller groups and roam with pack like behavior. If you’ve been in diving long enough, you’ll find that people drift in and out, switch sides and change their behaviors. Sometimes change is brought on by the wisdom of experience, sometimes through the example of great leadership and other times influenced by the shocking impact of witnessing an incident or tragedy.
ALERT DIVER: What are characteristics of a safety-aware diver?
JILL HEINERTH: In my opinion, a safety aware diver is one who is fully engaged in their participation in diving. He/she understands and has accepted risk and takes full personal responsibility for outcomes. A safety-aware diver is one who looks on a given dive and asks him/herself, “Am I fully capable of self rescue in this scenario and am I fully capable and willing to execute a buddy rescue if needed?” A safe diver, would only enter the water if the answer was an unequivocal “yes” to both questions.
ALERT DIVER: What is the role of training agencies in shaping and disseminating a culture of safety?
JILL HEINERTH: Training agencies have the opportunity to set the ground rules right from the beginning and guide divers to recognize that the general safety rules have been developed from practical experiences. I understand that training agencies have a responsibility to their stakeholders to sell classes and materials, but ultimately the sport benefits when a safe culture is rooted during entry level training and is carried through consistently in continuing education. When shortcuts are allowed and tolerated, then an attrition of knowledge and decay of safe practices results. One instructor that slips through the cracks without following standards can affect hundreds of future divers that can also move on to affect another generation of divers. Maintaining high standards and ensuring strict quality assurance is critical to nurturing a consistent climate of safe diving practices.
ALERT DIVER: How can dive operators contribute to the culture of dive safety?
JILL HEINERTH: I suppose I have become more conservative as I have gained the wisdom of experience. At the risk of sounding old, I sometimes look back on my early years as a Divemaster and realize that some of my colleagues bowed to the constant pressure to take clients on the “most exciting dive of their lives.” For some that lead to cutting corners and stretching standards in the hopes it would create return customers and big tips. These days, operators are under increased competition to offer the best adrenaline-laced experience they can possibly summon.
But I learned early that enthusiasm is infectious. If you love what you are doing, then your clients will love their experiences with you. There is wonder and satisfaction just being underwater. When people get away from their office or cold climate and arrive in a tropical destination, what they are really looking for is positivity, a communal participation in remarkable experiences and fun. It’s great if you get blessed with a stunning manta ray, but it can be just as exciting to see a jaw fish with a mouth full of eggs. A Divemaster is a skilled professional, but also a motivational speaker. Their knowledge and engagement in their passion is what will ultimately be remembered and that doesn’t require great depths or unnecessary risks.
ALERT DIVER: What kind of social support should divers expect when diving?
JILL HEINERTH: I believe that divers should seek a nurturing environment. (I cringe when I hear instructors or Divemasters yelling at a client). A learning environment or a diving tribe should be supportive, free of harassment or peer pressure and inclusive of all genders and experience levels. Diving should be mutually respectful. Each diver should be given the opportunity and be encouraged to take full responsibility for his/herself. Anything less than that is disrespectful to the individual and team and is patently unsafe.
ALERT DIVER: How can the culture of dive safety be promoted?
JILL HEINERTH: My Great Uncle Jock used to tell me that “a friend knows the song in your heart and sings it back to you when you have forgotten the words.” That lesson speaks volumes to me in terms of diving. Human beings are so inclined to find camaraderie that they are often prone to peer pressure. Keeping that in mind, it is important that individuals, instructors, operators and shop owners all work together to promote safe diving practices and pledge to point out issues that evolve over time. In doing so, they should recognize that positive role modeling will go a lot farther than negative reinforcement.
As a young diver in Tobermory, Canada, I was taking a class from a great role model, Dale McKnight. He was a master at mentoring academic and physical diving skills but also the psychological factors in diving. We had worked hard for days, practiced skills and made plans to complete the deepest and first decompression dive of our lives. We were on the boat heading to the site when Dale told us that we had done such a great job that he would reward us with an extra ten feet of depth and five more minutes of bottom time. We could use the contingency plans we had constructed the night before. My colleagues hooted and hollered in excitement while I felt a deepening angst growing in the pit of my stomach. With my head bowed down, I quietly muttered that I did not feel ready for that dive… that I would sit on the boat. I was disappointed and embarrassed. Dale tried to reel me back into the dive, but I was dejected and not ready.
After allowing a few minutes of chest beating and gratification, Dale admonished the other divers for permitting him to shift a safe, organized plan into a “trust-me” dive. At first, I did not understand what was happening, but soon recognized that he was patting me on the back. I had passed his test. By aborting my dive, I was being rewarded. I’m so glad to know that Dale is still teaching today, because he taught me an important lesson that may have even saved my life. A true survivor needs to know when to get within a hair’s breadth of complete success and then be willing to turn back and call it a day.
I have a special note for my rebreather diving colleagues. A safe culture of rebreather diving includes three simple actions.
Use a checklist (automated or on paper) every time your prepare your unit for a dive.
Complete a five-minute pre-breathe of your unit in a safe seated position with your nose blocked and paying attention to your displays.
Do not enter the water if anything has failed your test and abort your dive immediately in the safest manner possible if a failure occurs underwater.
Adherence to these three rules must be uncompromising for yourself and everyone on your team.