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June 1998 Vol. 13, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Politics of Rebreathers

OSHA, Sport Divers, and Training Agencies

from the June, 1998 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It could be that "old dog new trick" thing, but I'm skeptical about rebreathers, perhaps because I'm afraid I'm being force-fed technology. But I have to admit there are a few situations when diving with a rebreather makes sense: 1) You require the decompression advantages and extended range (gas duration) offered by a closed circuit or high-end semi-closed system (for use in deep or working dives, for example); 2) You're looking for stealth to improve your interactions with wildlife; or 3) Your dive location makes carrying multiple tanks/compressors impractical (for example, in the jungles of the Yucatan). However, improved interaction with wildlife is the only one of these reasons that has much to do with sport diving.

Also, I can't help questioning whether we are being pushed into this technology by economics. Is rebreather technology really something sport divers need, or are we being pushed by an industry looking for new ways to jazz up training and sales because their market has gone flat? It's not that I'm opposed to progress. I just can't help wondering if rebreather technology is being marketed prematurely--and to the wrong audience.

After returning from this year's Diving Equipment and Marketing Show (DEMA) in Anaheim, where rebreathers were once again a major hype, I asked technical diving guru, aquaCORPS and tek.Conference founder Michael Menduno (a.k.a. "M2") to fill us in on the status of the manufacturers (and would-be manufacturers) of rebreathers as well as the new involvement by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

-- J.Q.

At the DEMA rebreather party in January, it was apparent who was interested in rebreathers: techies, military divers, industry execs, engineers, film-makers, photographers, and scientists. Although rebreathers are constantly featured in sport diving magazines these days the fact is that few sport divers have them.

As of today only 1200 units are in the hands of users, which is not much compared to the millions of regulators out there. Drager is clearly the leader, having sold an estimated 1000 consumer semi-closed systems. From there, one can see a big investment that so far hasn't yielded a return. Biomarine Instruments and Cis-Lunar Labs have sold about 30 each, and Brownie's Third Lung has reportedly sold seven of its unique semiclosed systems. American Nitrox Divers, Inc. (ANDI), AURA, and Cochran Undersea Technologies are promising second-quarter shipping dates. (Of course, they made the same claim at last year's show, though they are evidently getting closer to bringing a unit to market.) Meanwhile, Oceanic, Inc., is prohibited under a Federal court order from entering the U.S. rebreather market until next year because of a 1995 lawsuit with Underseas Technology, Inc. According to Oceanic president Bob Hollis, however, the company has already sunk several million dollars into development efforts and is committed to bringing a rebreather to market next year.

Trainers and manufacturers are at least gaining muchneeded experience with the emerging technology. Even so, issues about government regulation, training, and equipment and testing standards are far from being resolved.

Manufacturers say they will keep a tight rein on training. Initially, many will offer company-run training courses certifying agency trainers. Unlike regulators, each rebreather unit will have specific requirements. Steam Machines has contracted with NAUI to write a semi-closed rebreather training program. PADI is reportedly working on a Drager training program.

Drager is aiming squarely at the recreational market. Its second generation Dolphin which nows offers an optional O2 meter and has the "electronic hooks" in place to eventually add a decompression meter. It retails for $2,999, down from $3,999.

The immediate challenge is convincing federal government regulators to allow them to train consumers without being subject to commercial diving regulations. Currently, rebreather instruction falls outside the 1974 exemption from commercial regulations granted to recreational scuba instructors by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). Legally, this means that rebreather instructors fall under statutes requiring an onsite recompression chamber, and there are other OSHA stipulations that apply whenever they are conducting classes or guiding a dive. Technically, these regulations apply to nitrox instruction as well, though OSHA has chosen not to enforce them due to budget limits.

To protect their prospective investments, Oceanic, Inc., and PADI initiated legal action in 1995 to extend the recreational exemption to rebreather and nitrox instruction. Later, their individual appeals were combined into a single variance request that has wound its way through the regulatory minefield over the last three years. Their proposed variance was published in the U.S. Federal Register last October (www.osha-slc.gov/FedReg_osha_data/FED19971031A.html). DEMA members were informed of the impending variance only three weeks before the December 31 deadline for public comment through a letter printed on DEMA letterhead and signed by Oceanic and PADI CEOs Bob Hollis and John Cronin.

Industry pundits called it a blatantly anti-competitive move. Ironically, as written, the variance would exclude technical diving instruction that involves decompression and deep diving, the very communities that pioneered these technologies in the first place.

After a flurry of calls and emails, Cis-Lunar CEO Richard Nordstrom was able to wrest a 60-day extension on the comment period from OSHA, but the controversy had awakened the sleeping giant. According to OSHA officials, the agency believed the variance represented an industry consensus and was unprepared for the response.

DEMA executive director Bob Watts called an open industry meeting on the first day of the show where Oceanic and PADI presented their case. Nordstrom and other manufacturers, unhappy with what they heard, organized a second closed meeting for rebreather and technical training agency executives at which the group unanimously agreed to oppose the variance as written.

Commercial diving interests are strongly opposed to a variance and want the underlying legislation rewritten. Under current regulations, commercial operators are required to have an onsite chamber only when conducting mixed gas diving (including nitrox) and for diving beyond 80 feet.

It's uncertain whether vendors and the technical diving agencies will ever agree. According to one rebreather executive who tried to organize an effort to address the variance before the show, most manufacturers refused to talk to one another and treated competitors as the enemy.

OSHA would like to wrap up the issue by June. Even though the regulations would only apply to training in the U.S., the outcome will have far-reaching implications for the industry globally. One result could be that American sport divers will have to leave the U.S. for deep and decompression diving training.

Editor's note: I'm being the skeptic once again, but I wonder if all of the hoopla about OSHA variances isn't just an industry power struggle to see who gets control of rebreather training and all the money that will go along with it. My biggest fear is that, by dragging in OSHA to settle a quarrel, the industry may inadvertently bring government control to nontechnical diving.

A diver since 1976, Menduno, who coined the term "technical diving," is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz, CA. E-mail him at m2aqua@worldnet.att.net.

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