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March 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Decline of Dive Training: Part I

and other practices killing the industry

from the March, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

On most dive trips, at some point the conversation slides into talking about "turkey divers," novices who clearly had insufficient training and really shouldn't be doing these dives until they develop better skills. Most often, it's not the diver's fault; rather, he was rushed through a course at home, had short and simple checkout dives in warm, clear water, and now finds himself facing five-foot swells, overcast skies and stiff currents in 70-degree water with 20-foot visibility. While we at times inappropriately laugh at these souls, we also fear for them because scuba can be a dangerous sport. So I asked Bret Gilliam, who has experience in more facets of the dive industry than anyone alive, to give his thoughts and then some. Here is the first section of his two-part article -- Ben Davison

Diving is a complicated sport. Not adversely so, but just like skiing, hang gliding and spelunking, there are prerequisites to be met, skills to be mastered and experience to be acquired in order to participate with an acceptable degree of risk. Notice that I said, "risk," not "safety," because active outdoor sports are not safe. There are hazards, and the potential exists for injury and even death, though training and practical experience can mitigate those risks. Diving also requires comprehension of subjects like embolism and decompression sickness. This isn't bowling or golf.

I believe that in today's troubled industry, certification programs are not preparing divers properly. It's a complicated issue and some parties will not warmly receive my analysis. So here we go...

Adverse Reaction

Modern dive training does many things far better than when I was certified in 1959. By orders of magnitude, equipment has leaped forward in design, efficiency, safety and ergonomics. Training texts are superior, and online home-study training courses are commonplace. Retail stores, dive boats and beach access in most locations have evolved into better environments for learning and initial openwater experiences. And directly-supervised checkout dives now number at least four, up from just one years ago. So what's the problem?

In the last couple of decades, economic pressures and a shrinking market have prompted other evolutions that began a slow slide that adversely affects diver competency and retention. As late as the 1980s, most diving instruction tended to start locally and was nurtured by dive retailers who conducted academic, pool and "open water" dives reasonably close to home. But as local conditions deteriorated and new divers were turned off by cold water, surf entries, limited marine life and low visibility, a new trend emerged: Divers were referred to warm-water regions to complete their certification. This shift was grounded in solid logic -- it was more fun. Where would you rather do your first ocean dives: through the surf in northern California, in chilly New England, in a murky lake in the Midwest, or in some warm place with more appeal? How about the Florida Keys, or the Caribbean, in warm, clear, calm waters with all the perks of a nice vacation?

Soon a symbiotic relationship developed between local training centers and resorts. Students enjoyed a smoother openwater transition, they established a dive vacation pattern, bought more equipment and tended to stay active divers. At the outset, the model was win-win all around. Now, 25 years later, things have changed.

First, I have no quarrel with having divers complete their ocean training in warm waters, as long as they understand that such environments are easier, more forgiving and far less demanding than challenging conditions back home. They must understand that those first few qualification dives in Grand Cayman for certification only provide experience to dive in similar benign waters: 82 degrees, 100-foot visibility, little or no current and relatively placid seas. In these scenarios, a diver's age and physical fitness are less of an issue, and this is OK -- provided they are fully informed and understand their limitations.

However, in many cases they are not informed. I am actively involved in operations consulting for scores of diving industry clients worldwide. My work includes advising on specific risk management protocols. In addition, I have also been hired as an expert witness in hundreds of lawsuits (almost equally for the plaintiff and for the defense) that gives me insider access to the details of accidents that are rarely disclosed when cases settle out of court and are cloaked in confidentiality agreements. I've gained a unique perspective on training and qualifications for divers, as well as the skills of instructors and divemasters who teach the programs and conduct the dives. Here are a few objective observations firmly rooted in reality.

Matters of Concern

  1. Some training agency programs, such as PADI and SSI, lead divers to believe they are more qualified than they actually are by awarding titles such as "Advanced Diver," which only require as few as nine total dives, and "Master Diver," requiring fewer than 25 dives. Some "Rescue Diver" courses are so simplistic as to be largely impractical in actual emergencies.

  2. Courses tend to be abbreviated for the sake of "moving the student" through the system instead of ensuring that skills and knowledge are fully mastered. PADI claimed to use a "performance based" standard of qualification, but in one lawsuit's discovery disclosures, that premise was proved to be totally misstated. For example, if a student was asked to clear a mask two dozen times and finally got it right on the 24th time, he was passed despite the fact he did not demonstrate the ability to repeat and master the skill. In fact, the student had successfully cleared his mask just once in 24 tries! This hardly meets any meaningful standard demonstrating that the student can successfully repeat the task and has become confident, regardless of multiple certification cards in his wallet or patches on his windbreaker.

  3. Students need the opportunity to make mistakes under direct supervision of an instructor, who turns the process into a positive learning experience in a controlled environment, rather than into a mistake that becomes a lesson in survival when it occurs in open water without experienced help at hand.

  4. Divers can qualify for instructor ratings with as few as 40 dives in some agencies. A diver can enter PADI divemaster training with only 40 dives logged. This hardly seems to meet a reasonable requirement for personal experience. Remember, these individuals will be responsible for oversight and supervision of neophyte divers, and they barely have any experience themselves.

  5. No effective oversight is made within some agencies to interdict and restrict instructors who consistently breach standards that lead to unacceptable accident records.

  6. Historically, the number of new certified divers has been vastly overstated for marketing purposes. Recent census reporting from the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association has confirmed this. When the database of divers is not accurate, it skews the ratio of participants' accident incident rates, and makes forecasting risk predictability and actuarial insurance ratings impossible to determine and assess.

  7. Additionally, the dropout rate for divers and instructors is at a historic high. This is particularly significant for instructors and other leadership levels as it leads to replacing existing professionals with those even less qualified. This is due mostly to employment conditions and poor pay. Although dive instructor is touted as a career path by many agencies, the majority of instructors find they lack the means to obtain a position that will pay a living wage unless their ratings are supplemented with additional credentials, like EMS training and maritime licenses, or specific expertise in such fields as photography and videography to supplement their value to a dive business.

  8. Since participation in diving has seen a dramatic decline over the past decade, there has been a corresponding decline in experienced mentors for new instructors and divemasters for on-the-job, real-world training. One outcome is declining effectiveness in the early identification of behavior patterns that more experienced dive supervisors would notice and correct. Another outcome is increased accidents.

  9. A review of lawsuits and accident reporting suggests accidents, increasingly, result from a simple lack of common sense, situational awareness and maritime experience. Little of this specific training and assessment has been incorporated into many agencies' instructor curricula.

  10. There is a need for enhanced training in evacuation, field assessment and treatment. Perhaps most importantly, there's a need to disqualify inexperienced divers from activities in challenging conditions.

  11. Finally, while most training agencies do a credible job of developing worthy standards and procedures, many dive resorts and liveaboards lack even rudimentary operations manuals that address varied field condition protocols for more advanced medical assessment, search and rescue, and adequate evacuation methods. These would also cover procedures for on-site treatment of decompression sickness with adequate oxygen and delivery equipment, along with in-water treatment table procedures, and sufficient supplies of oxygen with demand masks for surface breathing first aid.

Whew . . . that's a lot to digest. Emerging gradually over the years, these concerns have been brought on by a litany of factors, mostly due to economic strain, and for some, desperation. As more people drop out of diving, local retailers lose sales of both equipment and travel, and fewer people opt for diving as a job because the pay isn't sufficient compared to alternatives. All these elements collide as the industry struggles to sustain its business model. Next month: The decline in divers, and other trends harming dive training and the overall industry.

Bret Gilliam is a 43-year veteran of the diving industry, with involvement in retail stores, resorts, liveaboards, cruise ships, manufacturing, publishing and hyperbaric medicine. He founded the training agencies TDI, SDI, and ERDI. and served as the Chairman of the Board for NAUI in the early 1990s. He has logged more than 18,000 dives in his career.

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