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February 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 37, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Next Generation of Rebreathers: II

but questions of safety and insurance coverage linger

from the February, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In Part 1 of this feature, which appeared in the November issue of Undercurrent, we looked at the history of and developmental issues with closed-circuit rebreathers (CCR), as well as some of the confusion, conflicts and litigation in the dive industry. We left off after briefly looking at the advertising material for the new Poseidon Discovery rebreather, advertised as a "plug and play" unit, with the main module described as dishwasher safe. As they wrote it, "The diving is simple. Open the tank valves, wet the switch on the back of the display, wait for the systems check and off you go."

" Open circuit and CCR divers are
not currently compatible, unless
fully trained in both disciplines,
and training agencies, destination
resorts and commercial dive charter
operators should consider them

Sounds simple enough, but should the diving consumer wait for the next less expensive version, just as we are doing with personal computers, cell phones, iPods, etc., or do we buy a rebreather as it comes to market? I contacted two experienced rebreather instructors I've known for years, Gordon Boivin and Jeff Bozanic (Jeff wrote the book Mastering Rebreathers), to get their take.

Gordon still uses open-circuit, but all of his photography dives are done on a Prism Topaz rebreather. He has yet to travel with it because the technology is seldom supported at the destination. "We need to be aware of the need for factory support. Many rebreathers are made by 'boutique' manufacturers and they are simply not able to provide mass market support. Two of the most commercially supported units are the Inspiration and Evolution." He says he doesn't "see any benefit to the semi-closed systems (like the Draeger)." For more technical diving, Gordon is confident in the Prism Topaz as an expandable platform moving toward technical levels. For divers primarily interested in recreational limits diving, he says the key, aside from the initial investment, is "whether they have clear diving objectives that will be enhanced by the technology."

Out of 200 dives a year, Jeff Bozanic does six to eight open-circuit training or specialty dives, where the job requires open circuit or for the quick hop in the water. "I take a rebreather with me (I own 12) twice a month, on average. I take necessary support stuff, such as scrubber material, etc., if the destination does not have it. Transport of cylinders is a pain as they are confiscated regularly, even when empty with valves out. Weight allowance is also an issue, and I regularly ship gear to a destination in advance." If Jeff were to purchase a brand-new rebreather, "I would choose the Evolution, but I would also look at the Discovery Poseidon and the Titan." For a purely technical rebreather, he'd opt for the Inspiration (it has larger cylinders than the Evolution) or the Optima. "I think CCR is like open circuit 20 years ago and will eventually replace that 'old' technology. You have to focus on the real reasons to use a rebreather: no bubbles (you see lots of stuff) and increased, even double, bottom time."

While Gordon thinks the cost of operation is about the same as open circuit, Jeff believes it is twice as expensive for standard recreational depth dives but much less expensive for deep tech dives (i.e., you don't need those expensive exotic gases). Jeff says the most difficult CCR student he had was a diver with 8,000 hours logged, "and it was the retraining issues that were problematic. I see the industry moving towards entry-level training on CCR, and would predict five percent of all entry-level divers will be trained on CCR within five years."

Diver Compatibility

Is there a fundamental compatibility between open-circuit and closed-circuit divers? Should they dive together as buddies? Can they assist each other in an emergency? Or are they so fundamentally different (remember the "retraining" issues) that they should not dive together?

I received an email from one of my insurance clients in Hawaii who wanted to know if they could "accept" (i.e. did their insurance cover it) a rebreather diver on a normal recreational dive trip with 60-foot reef dives. My first thought was that if the CCR diver was properly certified and brought his own equipment, there should be no issues. However, who was the single rebreather diver going to dive with? If he was traveling alone, and there were no other rebreather divers along, he would have to dive with someone on open circuit. Would that work?

Well, if two divers know each other and are familiar with each other's equipment (fundamental buddy check 101), there should be no issues. But I, for one, would have to think before accepting the responsibility of being buddied with an unknown diver using a rebreather I had no clue how to operate. And how about the divemaster in charge? If he has no training or experience with rebreathers, is he capable of supervising the CCR diver? None of us should have any trouble checking out our dive buddy's gear prior to an open-circuit dive, regardless of which brand he is using. Will that work as easily with CCR?

" Many rebreather manufacturers
are small boutique companies
that don't carry product liability
insurance ....some may fold their
tents if their product is found to
be defective or dangerous."

If both divers are CCR-trained and using the same or similar units, they are as compatible a buddy pair as two open-circuit divers. Someone trained on both open circuit and CCR could be a suitable dive buddy under both scenarios, but an open-circuit diver is clearly only capable of diving with another open-circuit diver. A divemaster or instructor who is both open-circuit and CCR-trained could supervise both types of divers, but one who is only open-circuit-trained could not properly supervise a CCR diver. (Most training agencies say that mixing and matching divers with greatly varying experience levels is not a great idea). My conclusion is that open circuit and CCR divers are not currently compatible, unless fully trained in both disciplines, and training agencies, destination resorts and commercial dive charter operators should consider them incompatible. All dive travel operators need to have staff with the proper training, experience and ability to properly supervise rebreather divers before accepting them.

Rebreathers' riskier realities

The new rebreather technology has all the indicators of a true game-changing event, but it has the potential to seriously increase the inherent risk in an already risky activity. Rebreathers are more complicated than normal open-circuit scuba gear, and they depend upon electronics to power their brains, while opencircuit scuba is basically mechanical and dependable.

Modern recreational divers typically use every available means to increase bottom time, and are rarely in a position where a free ascent is possible without potential for complications. The rebreather allows us to push that envelope even further, and that equates to increased risk. With the technology to take us deeper and longer, it is more important for a diver to assess and understand personal limits to a degree never before required. We now have the ability and equipment to get into very serious trouble.

Manufacturers have an obligation to ensure their products are inherently safe. Consumers typically believe responsible product manufacturers will make their product as safe as possible, and they expect manufacturers whose products cause injuries or damage will be taken to task for that. Typically, most manufacturers are insured for such an eventuality, and consider it a normal cost of doing business.

Most mainstream dive equipment manufacturers have product liability insurance, but many rebreather manufacturers are small boutique companies that don't carry it. Some tell me their business is simply too small to be able to afford the coverage, while others tell me their product is so good they don't need it! Whatever the reason, the public needs to know that some rebreather manufacturers may fold their tents if their product is found to be defective or dangerous. That puts these manufacturers into the "home built" category, and I personaly would not trust my safety to a unit that was built in someone's garage. The old adage of "buyer beware" becomes rather important.

Like hang gliding, backcountry skiing and many other adventure sports, diving is not inherently "safe." Yet some members of the industry seem to believe that increased risk is not a major issue, that we should push ahead with technology and products, regardless of the increased risk and potential consequences. But manufacturers and training agencies have an absolute legal obligation to protect the public to a reasonable degree. As an insurance agent, I hope the quality of the new wave of rebreathers doesn't keep me too busy handling claims.

Peter Meyer is the senior vice president of a major international insurance brokerage firm, and has been a leading consultant for the dive industry since 1988. He provides risk-management advice and insurance to dive training agencies, retail dive facilities, dive vessel operators and dive equipment manufacturers. He has owned and operated retail dive facilities, liveaboard dive charter vessels, and has taught recreational diving. He lives in Vancouver, BC.

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