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April 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 27, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Nautilus Lifeline: User Error or Gear Malfunction?

from the April, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In last month's Flotsam & Jetsam, we reported on the search-and-rescue efforts for a 46-year-old diver who was swept away by the current while diving off Hawaii's Kaena Point. We stated how the Coast Guard helicopter crew used night-vision goggles to find him in the darkness. Well, it also helped that the diver, named Scott Folsom, flashed a light at the helicopter. Folsom, who was found in good condition, had all the emergency gear recommended for a diver to carry, from a 10-foot-tall inflatable surface marker buoy to extra oxygen. He also had the Nautilus Lifeline, the highly-touted two-way radio that is supposed to broadcast an alarm and one's GPS location to every vessel within an 11-mile radius -- but when he tried to turn it on, it didn't work.

We wrote about the Lifeline last November, in particular how its rollout was botched by slow production and bad public relations. But as soon as it was revealed on television and the Internet that Folsom was carrying a nonworking Lifeline, CEO Mike Lever (who also owns the Nautilus Swell, which we profile on page 5), sprang into action. He contacted Folsom to get his unit sent back to the company for analysis, then sent Folsom two replacement units. Lever says he plans to publish a comprehensive analysis report on the unit after all the testing, but he did give Undercurrent the status, which is "We don't know."

"We have tested Scott's Lifeline extensively in the lab," he wrote us. "Radio frequency output is normal. Firmware is working fine. We disassembled his unit and put the board through all the manufacturing QA tests. We did discover the current draw at full transmission power was 19 percent higher than our benchmark units, but that is within limits. The battery has been sent to the manufacturer for analysis to see if there is anything wrong with the cells. One interesting note: There are only a handful of battery manufacturers in the world. Those cells are repackaged and sold under many different name-brand labels.

"So at this point, we cannot find anything wrong with the unit. All we know is that Scott tested the unit when he first got it in November. It was not recharged again until after the incident when it wouldn't turn on. He took it home after 'the drift,' plugged it in and it worked perfectly. I will not and cannot put any blame or responsibility on Scott. If there is any problem, the responsibility falls on my shoulders.

"We have changed our recommended operating procedure to fully charge a lifeline before a weekend of diving or a dive vacation . . . The Firmware v.60 will be released in April, including an upgrade for a self-diagnostic check."

As for Scott Folsom, he plans to continue using the Lifeline - - but he says he will dive with two of them at once as an insurance policy for the higher-risk type of open ocean diving he does in Hawaii.

It's an unfortunate PR blow when a product, especially one supposed to ensure your safety, doesn't work as it should. However, if you're the buyer of a version 1.0 product, expect to find some bugs and problems. Lever has done the right thing in being quick to respond, and to give as many details as possible. (He got a recent thumbsup from Dave Dillehay, owner of Aldora Divers in Cozumel, who posted a report on ScubaBoard in late February about his testing of Lifeline units, and proclaimed himself "pretty well satisfied.") By divulging the problems and describing the fixes, that information helps divers who are interested in a safety tool like Lifeline figure out where to jump in on the innovation curve.

Whether you have a Lifeline (or two) in your gear, it's essential to check before every dive trip -- and even before every dive -- that it's working as it should. And keep in mind that Folsom survived and was rescued because he had an arsenal of other safety gear -- and knew how to use them.

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