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May 1997 Vol. 12, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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An Alternative to Shallow-Water Drowning

from the May, 1997 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Shallow-water drowning secondary to surface-airway submersions is typified by the following quotation from Dive Alert Network's "Report on Diving Accidents and Fatalities," 1996 edition, pp. 94-95.

DAN RECORD NO: 294 CAUSE OF DEATH IMMEDIATE: Drowning/nonfatal submersion

"The decedent was a diver of moderate experience with a 14-diver group on a charter boat. The sea conditions were marginal and several divers had difficulty. The decedent was low on air but not in immediate difficulty and was escorting another diver who was in trouble and required rescue by the boat crew and divers. When that emergency was over, it was recognized that the decedent was missing. The search revealed her floating face down in the water with BC inflated."

Every buoyancy compensator (BC) -- vest-style, back-mount, or horse-collar -- particularly when partially inflated, is capable of side high-airway submersion. This position can be aggravated by cylinder selection. The vast majority of steel and all-aluminum cylinders need an attached counterweight for reliable self-rescue.

The Dive Alert Network's review of 2,500 fatalities shows that 50 percent of the drownings occurred on the surface, 90 percent of them while the divers were wearing their weight belts. Unconsciousness is the great equalizer: the instructor-trainer equals the novice, the 30-year expert equals the irresponsible uncertified diver. All that stands between the distressed diver and airway submersion is the diver's gear.

Ballast Mediated Airway Protection (BAMP) is the nonreleasable attachment of a small amount of ballast onto the tank to offset the BC's side buoyancy, conferring emergency surface flotation or self-rescue.

In 1996, Scuba Pro, Forte, Zeagle, and Brownie's Third Lung reintroduced tank-mounted counterweights. Forte's is integrated into one model's BC tank band. Scuba Pro's is an option available for one of their products. Zeagle's optional tank-mounted weight system is said to fit all models of their BCs. Brownie's counterweight is a stand-alone system that will retrofit any BC with airway protection and is the only product supplied with adequate instructions.

William L. Courtney, M.D.

This article first appeared in Pressure, a newsletter published by the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society.

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