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July 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 39, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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DEMA’s “Reaching Out” Award

not worth winning, says Bret Gilliam

from the July, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Every year since 1989, the Dive Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) gives its Reaching Out Award to honor the best and brightest in the recreational dive industry. Past recipients are a Who's Who list, ranging from Jacques Cousteau and Clive Cussler to Lloyd Bridges and Stan Waterman. Steve Barsky, a consultant for the dive industry, decided to nominate Bret Gilliam, a regular contributor to Undercurrent, to receive the award in 2012. After all, Gilliam has worn multiple hats in the dive industry; he founded nine companies that included manufacturing, publishing, liveaboards, resorts, retailers, luxury yacht charters, training agencies, even a dive cruise ship line that was the largest diving operation in history. For his accomplishments over 40-plus years, Gilliam is also receiving the NOGI award given by the Academy of Underwater Arts & Sciences, the oldest and most prestigious award in the dive industry.

But Gilliam did not get the 2012 award from DEMA. It went to Dick Rutkowski and Dan Orr, both deserving fellows and good selections. This story is not about Gilliam, but rather DEMA, which changed its criteria for the 2013 award. Gilliam and many other people in the industry, expecially those who are gadflies, will no longer be eligible. Why? It's not officially clear, but as Barsky wrote in an article for the March/April issue of the trade magazine Dive Center Training, DEMA changed its eligibility criteria this year for the awards. Instead of the test being whether the person has made significant contributions to diving, the criteria now includes the (paraphrased) following: "Nominee must have continuously supported the dive industry in a positive manner which reflects agreement with DEMA's mission and nominees whose actions and efforts do not reflect positively on the dive industry are precluded . . . Examples include acting as a plaintiff's expert witness against members of the industry . . . and DEMA members in particular." Both Gilliam and Barsky regularly serve as expert witnesses in dive accident litigation, both for the plaintiff and the defendant's cases.

By those criteria, several previous recipients of the award would be ineligible today, Barsky writes. "[They] advocated ideas that moved our industry forward into new, profitable territory. Anyone who advocates a new diving technique, program or equipment that DEMA finds heretical will be denied recognition."

Lee Selisky, CEO of dive gear manufacturer Sea Pearls, is a former president of DEMA and was on its board when nitrox started becoming popular in the early 1990s. He remembers how DEMA took all the actions it could to stop its acceptance. "DEMA plastered big signs at its annual trade show that said 'DEMA neither supports nor endorses the use of nitrox.' Members then didn't understand the difference between nitrox and nitrous oxide, no lie."

"We need people who bring up challenging
questions that should be debated and discussed.
DEMA's position is that they don't
want to see any debate or discussion."

Selisky says that anyone who disagrees with DEMA on its official view of anything is shunned. "Everything has got to be in a positive light, but so many people have taken a stance against DEMA with a counter- position that they would never qualify for the award. We need people who bring up challenging questions that should be debated and discussed. DEMA's position is that they don't want to see any debate or discussion."

Glen Egstrom, Professor Emeritus in the department of Physiological Sciences at the University of California in Los Angeles, was the principal investigator of UCLA's Diving Safety Research Project for 34 years. In his role of evaluating diving equipment, emergency procedures and training methods, he also became a top expert witness in dive-related cases. He stated that a good expert witness will accept a case based solely on its merit. "There are good plaintiff and good defense cases that deserve to be adjudicated. "I rarely worked on plaintiff cases, but I did work on a few that I felt had merit. Unless DEMA had a complete understanding of the issues in every case, they would have no facts upon which to determine any impact on the dive industry. Should DEMA develop discriminatory policies that would attempt to control the behavior or opinions of professional experts involved in litigation, they would be interfering with individual rights to a fair hearing. DEMA is in no position to prejudge the impact of an expert's work on 'the best interests of the industry.' To do so would likely create far more problems than it could ever solve."

So while Egstrom acknowledges the fault in DEMA's behavior, had he had the chance to vote for Gilliam, he may not have. "Brett Gilliam is a controversial figure within the dive industry. I am not a personal fan of his, but I recognize that he has many faceted talents and has provided many positive, as well as negative, contributions, to diving. In order to balance his net contributions, it would be necessary to develop an objective record of his works." And that is the point. When someone who has made such major contributions to the industry still has done a thing or two to piss off the leadership, how do you avoid giving him the award? Easy. Change the rules.

After Barsky's magazine article was published, DEMA put a public rebuttal on its website, saying Gilliam was never specifically discussed or considered when the board decided to change its award nomination guidelines. In fact, guidelines that include an objective, numerically-based rating, in combination with a subjective rating, have been in place to assist in the honoree selection process since 2004.

As for the guideline about nominees supporting the dive industry in a positive way, DEMA writes, "It is important to note that this has been publicized because it alerts nominators as well as reviewers on the Board to research and consider the individual nominees' actions in this area. As a subjective consideration, it should be apparent that any individual not acting within the best interest of the dive industry on any topic area, including the area of litigation, should be carefully reviewed. Just as obvious, a nominee who has consistently acted within the best interest of the Industry, including during litigation, should also be carefully reviewed. The key phrase has always been 'acting within the best interest of the industry.' Unlike the implication of the article, nothing in DEMA's mission precludes taking a controversial stand or prevents self-policing."

We asked DEMA's executive director, Tom Ingram, to further expand on that statement. He wrote back in an e-mail, "I don't have anything to add to the commentary which DEMA posted on its website in April regarding the transparency of the Reaching Out Award guidelines, other than to say that DEMA did not receive a Reaching Out Award nomination for Mr. Gilliam in 2013. For Undercurrent to produce an unbiased report on the subject being raised by Mr. Barsky and Mr. Gilliam, your article must include DEMA's entire commentary on the article which Mr. Barsky published earlier in the year."

We can do that -- to read that entire statement, go to

As the person under the spotlight when it comes to DEMA's award and who deserved it, what does Gilliam have to say? We asked him to give his perspective.

* * * * *

" I never asked to be nominated for the Reaching Out award and, in fact, warned those who pushed for this that it was an exercise in futility. DEMA has always been political, and I just don't play that game. Most industries change from within by persons who buck the status quo and lead new ideas into growth. My outspoken support for innovation and the embrace of new technology and practices was fundamentally grounded in safety. But it has been over 40 years of pushing the ball up the hill against those who opposed nearly anything new in diving and branded those who disagreed with them as infidels. The ultimate validation for me is that everything I advocated became mainstream practice, over the objections of the less enlightened. It also made me a multimillionaire. As for this new policy of exclusion, it merely reinforces the impression of paranoid delusion. Yes, I have done expert witness work for plaintiff's cases where negligent acts killed or injured people. I have absolutely no apologies for that. I've also done an equal number of defense cases, including seven that are ongoing right now. I guess I'm guilty of having a moral compass.

"For DEMA now to come out and exclude anyone who ever was involved in plaintiff's litigation makes about as much sense as having an NFL Hall of Fame only for defensive players. Or the American Bar Association barring all plaintiffs' attorneys. And just wait until this policy is unveiled at a trial in the future. This policy will get brought out as evidence and used to show that the diving industry (DEMA board) is trying to bring negative pressure and undue influence on an objective plaintiff's expert. . . and the judge and jury will feast on it.

"I'm almost in wonder that any group of supposed leaders (from any industry) could act with such blissful ignorance of the public perception of such blatant policies of exclusion. It's comical and telling. In a reverse irony, I'm actually honored to be the subject of their delusional behavior. Interestingly, the DEMA board makes no attempt whatsoever to address the points that Barsky, Selisky and others raised about retroactive exclusion of other award recipients such as Jon Hardy, Glen Egstrom, Dick Long, Bob Hollis, Jimmy Stewart, etc. Or that all industries move forward by rocking the status quo. And again, the blatant attempt to justify exclusion of anyone who was on the side of a plaintiff's litigation is breathtaking in their ignorance of how that will even more ironically be played directly into an expert's testimony in future litigation.

"But I wasn't the only target. There is one other obvious "gorilla in the room:" Dick Rutkowski was one of last year's awardees. Dick was the earliest champion of nitrox and was vilified by the DEMA board at the time for his heretical views on such new innovative practice. I still remember trying to explain to Dick (when DEMA briefly banned any nitrox vendor from its trade show in 1993) that their actions were illegal under restraint of trade law and would have to be rescinded. Dick thought it was a personal attack on him. I think he summed it when he observed, "Science always overcomes bullshit." The man had a gift of clarity.

"Nitrox, of course, not only became mainstream, but fueled an entire growth segment of the industry that had never existed before. Diving computers were initially condemned but revolutionized diving for everyone. These two technological advances advanced both safety and profits, an unusual combination that confounded the critics and archconservatives. It also led to the ultimate demise of Skin Diver magazine that raised negative 'advertorial' publishing to a previously unattained level of absurd self-indulgence. As I noted at the time, the diving public was far smarter than those clowns figured and wanted real information backed by facts. Consumers ultimately spoke with their wallets. And Skin Diver crashed in disgrace, leaving a putrid odor that forever tarnished the pioneering role once played by the publication.

"The diving industry is shrinking. It has no respected leadership at a time when leaders have never been needed more. I'd estimate that the Gross National Product of diving is less than 40 percent of what it was when we turned the corner of the new century in 2000. The decline has expanded like a downhill snowball's course, and DEMA has no clue how to arrest the monster than hurtles into the abyss. Barsky's nomination of me and his subsequent article have evoked a Pavlovian response that is almost beyond belief.

"There is much in diving that fundamentally has to be changed. Training of instructors has been dumbed down, and initial experience requirements drastically reduced by some agencies. Accidents and fatalities are occurring that simply shouldn't happen. And the industry just sticks its head farther into the sand.

"For me, I'm glad to watch this from the sidelines. I was extremely honored to receive the NOGI award -- it is untarnished by politics, as the only persons allowed to vote are past recipients and inductees into its Hall of Fame. And I had no idea I was even nominated until notified that I had won. Recognition by professional peers is pure and meaningful. Sadly, the DEMA award no longer is. Steve Barsky took a bullet from DEMA because of his courage to speak out. He's the guy who deserves an award for honesty."

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