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January 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 30, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Should Diver Certification Last Forever?

not if you haven’t dived since J.R. Ewing was shot

from the January, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Historically, upon taking training for scuba diving and successfully passing the academics, pool sessions, skills and openwater diving, the student is awarded a certification card that qualifies him or her as a "diver" at some level ... be it: "open water," "advanced," "rebreather,"etc. This certification is essentially good for life. It does not need to be renewed. It does not expire. There is no requirement for additional training. And no obligation to actually continue diving to maintain proficiency and practical experience. Basically, once you're in the "club," you're in for life.

It has been that way since dive training agencies began back in the 1950s, and it remains that way today. Instructors, assistant instructors and divemasters are required to renew annually, pay dues to an agency, buy insurance, complete continuing education courses, and show legitimate evidence of diving activity and student training. But the regular "diver" population is not obligated to any such requirements, and, according to industry protocols, can continue diving on their original c-card forever. Sounds like a good deal ... But is it a good idea in today's reality?

The Dive Industry: Infamous for Not Implenting Change

Having been asked to comment on this rather sensitive subject, I will open the ultimate "can of worms" that no one seems to want to discuss. It reminds me of the controversy that ensued when I advocated for the acceptance of nitrox, diving computers, technical diving and rebreathers nearly 25 years ago. I was branded as an apex "anti-Christ" then by diving's arch-conservatives, and I suspect that they will be preparing a fresh cross to nail me upon once they read this little epistle. At least I'll have an elevated view to gaze down at those in disagreement as they try to re-engineer my crucifixion. There's a Monty Python skit here somewhere. Think "Life of Brian" and just substitute me.

Some divers who obtain an initial
certification (or two or three) don't
dive much for years. Skills and situational
awareness lapse and degrade.

Let's take a look with an objective perspective. First of all, I don't have the simple answer because it's a multi-faceted issue and will require a fundamental cooperative change of protocol industrywide. But the diving industry is infamous for being unable to implement practical and timely changes to recognize innovations, technological advances, and evolution of diving practices by active participants ... while simultaneously possessing a remarkable ability at times to replicate a camel burying its head in the sand when the "obvious" strikes diving's "leadership" as too controversial and might require them to take an initially unpopular stand on issues that need to be addressed and remediated.

Again, consider the nearly decade-long war against nitrox and diving computers as one example. Of course, all this became mainstream practice ... not because DEMA woke up and led the way, but because the diving public was a whole lot smarter than many thought, and simply moved forward while DEMA's "leadership" watched from the sidelines and finally caught up.

Last year, I wrote an article about the state of diving instruction today and whether the training agencies were doing an effective job educating and qualifying divers. There were positives and negatives that I put forward then, including questioning the plethora of meaningless specialty certifications (some of which did not even require diving) and other nonsensical practices, such as issuing Advanced Diver certifications to people who had completed only a total of nine dives in their lives: four dives in entry-level training and five more in the "advanced" course.

C'mon. Does this make any sense except to keep moving students through the monetary turnstile and handing out c-cards like supermarket coupons in the Sunday newspaper? You want a "shark diver specialty?" No problem . . . do one day of diving while you watch dive guides feed reef sharks. You want an "underwater photographer specialty?" Easy . . . do one day of diving with a digital point-and-shoot rental camera and you join David Doubilet and Ernie Brooks in the ranks of image artistry. The list goes on ad nauseam. But does it make you a better and more proficient diver? Well, duh, I think we all know the answer to that.

Divers Who Look Good on Paper Don't Always Look Good in the Water

Many divers get certified and go on to actively dive and participate regularly. They visit different regions and are exposed to various conditions including currents, restricted visibility, boat diving, deeper diving on drop-off walls, wrecks and caves, and develop practical experience that embeds confidence and competence. They evolve into divers completely capable of independent activity and do not need supervision or control. These divers are not a problem.

But others obtain an initial certification (or two or three) and really don't dive much at all for years. Skills and situational awareness lapse and degrade. Equipment and technique move forward, and they miss these evolutions due to inactivity. One example is the popularity of weight-integrated buoyancy compensators. If you were trained using a traditional BC and a separate weight belt, this can pose problems in a stressful contingency, and fatalities have occurred simply because the diver did not know how to ditch the weight.

"Aha," cry the naysayers. "Many dive operators require divers to either declare their recent experience on a form or produce a log book that shows their diving." Well, that all sounds good in theory. But some dive customers clutching their c-cards and knowing that they are certified "for life" are not going to worry too much about fudging a declaration or "pencil-whipping" a log book. If you doubt this, just ask a resort divemaster or California boat crew if they've ever had to deal with divers who looked good on paper but seemed to have some pretty serious issues when they jumped in the water. That's life in the real world, and it can be a real bitch. No one wants to admit a deficiency among peers, even though blithely misrepresenting their actual proficiency could be an accident just waiting to happen. And more often than not, that's exactly what is happening. Accident rates are up dramatically, and no one wants to admit it.

I'm not advocating governmental control over diving. The government can do nothing right in such arenas, and our taxes would all go up just to fund a new bureaucracy of nitwits who would administer such oversight and still screw it up. But within our self-regulated industry, there ought to be some revision to our protocols that creates a practical methodology to ensure divers do maintain proficiency and skills through active diving participation. There may very well need to be a requirement for some divers to go through some updated training and evaluation. And brace yourself: There may be a strong argument that diving certifications should actually expire and be renewed by demonstrating proficiency in knowledge, skills and actual diving.

Ouch, I just felt the first nail pounded into the palm of my hand on the cross. At least the centurion with the hammer smiled when he did it . . . maybe because he had to maintain his "crucifixion" specialty annually or be sent back to shoveling horse dung at Pontius Pilate's stable. He also had a nice "chariot specialty" patch sewn into his robe that he told me he got during a weekend race with Ben- Hur a few years back, but he found the racing too stressful and dropped out. Nonetheless, he's still qualified in that specialty and offered to take me around the track if I make it through the resurrection. We exchanged cell phone numbers.

How About a Free Refresher Dive?

But back to eternal diving certifications. It's not going to be a pleasant journey. First, none of this will work without full industry cooperation at every level. The initial resistance will come forward by those declaring it will cause drops in sales for equipment, dive trips and a host of other spending. If done without a carefully planned roll-out, it could very well have such consequences. But it would actually stimulate revenues if phased in with a modicum of common sense and marketing. Experienced active divers are not the target. Even the "weekend warriors" who do one dive trip a year in Bonaire don't show up in my sniper scope. It's the folks who got certified and simply didn't continue the sport who need to be properly identified and vetted for their own good.

Divers who aren't confident are not buying
gear or laying down their credit cards for
exotic dive trips. This would be a gateway
to stimulate their interest again.

One way of eliminating customer resistance would be to provide a refresher dive and knowledge update at no charge. Crazy, huh? Yeah, but it would bring business in the door, and collateral sales would result. Divers who are not confident or haven't been diving are not buying wetsuits, regulators, BCs, camera systems, diving computers, new mask, fins and snorkels, and they're certainly not laying their credit cards down for exotic trips to Indonesia, the Solomons or Cocos Island. But this would be a gateway to stimulate their interest again in turning a benign vacation to the Bahamas or Caribbean into a family outing that includes diving. And if done properly and diplomatically, the process would re-awaken interest, stimulate sales and bring back a customer who had drifted away. It would also tend to draw spouses and children into the sport who weren't around when Joe Diver got his battered c-card sometime back in the 1970s or 1980s.

Another issue arises concurrently: Should today's certifications have an expiration date before which some sort of renewal is required? Again, it requires some basis of Solomon's logic, but it would improve safety, spur sales and prompt diver interest to begin active participation again. Face it, inactive divers have largely dropped out and moved on to other activities. They're not customers anyway. If renewal was tactfully implemented, they might like to preserve their diver status and come on down for the refresher program offered at a minimum charge, and be issued a new card good for another five years. And while they are in the retail store or dive resort getting re-qualified, don't you think that just maybe some sales will result? Remember, you're grabbing a customer who has dropped out and re-stimulating his interest. The only result can be positive.

Promote such renewals with a social element, such as a film on exciting diving, a special on snorkeling gear, or simply a beer and BBQ "meet & greet" to get people in the door. Then treat them like adults and make it fun. Don't run the programs in a demeaning or patronizing manner. Emphasize how far diving has moved ahead with better equipment designs, suits that fit more comfortably, great exotic diving travel on the new generation of luxury liveaboard diving vessels, and how the new evolutions in cameras make passable underwater photography possible for just about anyone.

It's all about customer service and sales technique. If the renewal process is presented as a "scuba police" mentality, it will not bring the desired results. The Caymans tried that in the early 1990s by banning dive computers, outlawing nitrox, mandating absurd depth limits, and making all divers, regardless of experience, dive under the supervision of divemasters. Most qualified divers just said "the hell with these morons" and moved on to more accommodating venues. Once gone, those divers were not coming back. But put forward some creativity and you'll bring new customers in and harvest some old ones who have been around before your dive store was even opened.

There's a Smart Way to Stop Diver Dropout

Diving suffers from a phenomenal dropout rate. You can argue about it all you want, but it's close to 70 percent within the first 12 to 18 months. I can hear the denials already, but after 44 years in the industry, including running NAUI and founding the TDI/SDI conglomerate, I've got some unique perspective. I was also invested in resorts, liveaboards, diving cruise ships, publishing and manufacturing. Now my primary focus is consulting on litigation in the diving industry. This gives me insider and highly confidential access to actual records on diver certifications and how the insurance business operates. A huge element of this is accurately assessing the active diver population. And believe me, the dropout rate is real ... not only on the diver level, but also in the instructor and divemaster ranks. How do you sustain a business model when the overwhelming majority of your original customers choose to stop participating? You don't. Ask Blockbuster how their sales are going these days.

What causes diver dropout? A huge reason is training that does not adequately qualify them for confident independent diving. That has to be fixed as well. You are not going to retain customers who have a stressful incident shortly after completing supervised training. Sure, you told them they were qualified divers after they did four 20-minute dives in that sinkhole, lake, warm water Caribbean location or even an aquarium. But when they get a scare in the surf, or a current takes them for a ride like the water slide in an amusement park, they may decide to take up golf or tennis. You cannot make sales of anything except toilet paper to people who get the poop scared out them.

The industry needs to wake up. Diving is shrinking. Accidents are occurring that never should manifest and did not occur in the "old days" when divers were more aggressively trained. Training needs to evolve, and the nonsensical specialty ratings need to go away. Yes, it's a revenue stream for each card issued, but that can be shifted easily into courses that last longer (and have a higher tuition). And with more dives under supervision, a minor crisis is turned into a positive learning experience instead of a life-threatening, suit-soiling freak-out that drives the diver out of the sport. You will not be selling a $1,200 dive computer to someone who had a bad dive experience on their own when they should have still been under the watchful eye of an instructor. Keeping people in the sport is the key to a successful business model in every segment of the industry.

This narrative is not intended as an indictment of the training agencies. There have been some phenomenal positive elements in instruction over the years, including better textbooks, videos, online training, and more precise and unified consensual levels of training. But somewhere along the way, instruction got "dumbed down." Entry-level training was simplified and did not meet a proper standard to credential divers for "forever" unless they decided to stay in a system of seemingly endless additional course levels. Eventually, they would emerge with enough experience through multiple courses to gain adequate experience to dive on their own. But there is no requirement that they do so ... only recommendations. And a lot of divers do not choose to stay in the system because they think they are more qualified than they actually are. Then they get in trouble. Again, an "advanced diver" with a total of nine dives? Let's all try to digest just how ridiculous that really is.

And it's smart business to set some sort of standard and practice to deal with certified divers who haven't gotten their hair wet since Mork and Mindy was still on television. Or Perry Mason. It won't be easy, and it will require cooperative creative thinking by the industry. But it will be good business -- and that's the bottom line.

Yeah, that's it: "bottom time" increases the "bottom line." Let accounting and diving do a Vulcan mindmeld. As Spock would say, "It's only logical." And if you remember Star Trek and haven't been diving since, you might like to think about dipping a toe back in the water with an updated fun certification renewal. Nah, that's as crazy as thinking nitrox would catch on.

Bret Gilliam has been diving since 1959 and was professionally involved in every aspect of the diving industry for more than four decades. He was Chairman of the Board for NAUI, then founded TDI and SDI as President and CEO.

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