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April 2022    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 48, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Are All Diving Instructors Up to The Job?

what works in the book may be unsafe in the water

from the April, 2022 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Scuba diving can be safe if it's taught correctly and the proper safety precautions are in place. However, in the U.S., scuba instruction standards are variable, especially when they may have been designed initially for benign tropical waters but applied where it's cold and dark.

Harry Truitt, who runs the Lighthouse Diving Center in Seattle, WA, is concerned about this. He was triggered to contact us by a tragic fatality during diving instruction in Montana Undercurrent wrote about in July 2021. He told us about a similar tragedy during instruction in the cold waters of Puget Sound.

On the first day of August 2021, the Seattle Times reported that the body of a scuba diver trainee was recovered from the water at Seacrest Park in West Seattle. The 33-year-old woman had gone missing during scuba training in the dark at 10 p.m. the day before at Seacrest Cove 2, a popular diving location. She had been accompanied by six other trainees and two diving instructors. She was last glimpsed underwater at the Honeybear boat wreck

He says, "If the death count had not been so high from one location, I wouldn't be writing to Undercurrent. (There were two other deaths there, in 2009 and 2016, respectively.)

Harry believes the tragedies are caused by inexperienced diving instructors using teaching principles developed for dive resorts in warmer climates and slavishly following the routines as described in the training manuals while not having the wit to adapt them for safe use in the cold Puget Sound waters, especially at night.

He says, "Besides another tragedy, we wonder if these accidents will bring the wrath of government regulation on us. Many diving instructors are good instructors, but of late, I find many themselves are inadequately trained."

When Rules Clash with Reality

Even when dive instruction is highly regulated, as it is in many European countries, instructors can get fixated on theory and ignore the obvious. Stoney Cove, a cold spring-fed quarry with poor visibility, hosts thousands of divers annually, most under instruction. It has a long history of diving casualties.

She left her trainee at 30 feet and didn't return because "it would have been a second dive without a surface interval."

Twenty years ago, a woman trainee died after her amateur female instructor lost control of her drysuit buoyancy and accidentally bobbed to the surface. She left her trainee at 30 feet and didn't return because "it would have been a second dive without a surface interval." She left her trainee, afraid and alone, to eventually drown.

It's madness when theory replaces common sense, and a recent case, still subject to criminal prosecution, reminds us of that.

Do you know the difference between a safety stop and a deco stop? To avoid mistakes in ascent rates and possible mandated deco stops resulting in decompression sickness, training agencies have added an optional safety stop 15 feet deep. It's in the manual. It is a way of adding a layer of safety to an ascent protocol that might be considered too onerous by the casual sport diver who can't be bothered otherwise.

So, whatever else happens, it's thought best to stop for three minutes at 15 feet before regaining the surface after a dive - just to be safe. However, things don't always work out as the training manual specifies in the real world.

Nigel Craig, a professional diving instructor (together with a divemaster), was teaching a student, 40-year-old Richard Stansfield, in July 2016. The morning training dive involved descending in Stoney Cove to approximately 100 feet. Because Stansfield had stopped several times to resolve ear pressure issues, he had much less air than he should have when he reached that depth. Following an underwater exercise, he and his instructor and divemaster began their ascent. At 60 feet, Stansfield indicated he was out of air, unable to breathe, and showing signs of panic.

Tokarczyk, the divemaster, offered Stanfield his redundant air supply. At 40 feet, Stansfield indicated he was out of air. Instructor Craig intervened and gave Stansfield his own regulator and switched to his redundant and independent air supply (something mandatory for professional scuba instructors under U.K. law).

They continued their ascent to 15 feet, where they had planned to make a safety stop. Despite Stansfield twice indicating he was struggling to breathe, upon reaching the 15-foot mark, Craig indicated they would complete the safety stop for three minutes. Instead, Stansfield attempted to pull himself up the buoy line.

Remarkably, Craig is alleged by the prosecuting council to have pulled Stansfield back down and held him there while they waited out the three minutes. Meanwhile, Stansfield's regulator, borrowed from Craig, slipped from his mouth, and he drowned. Craig, fixated on the safety-stop rule, waited for the prescribed three minutes to pass before taking the unconscious trainee to the surface, where he died.

To Craig's mind, the safety stop took precedence over a controlled emergency swimming ascent (CESA in PADI-language), and that is why Craig was accused of gross negligent manslaughter at Leicester Crown Court, U.K. in March 2022.

The court heard that Stansfield had been scuba diving for a year and had completed 30 dives before the tragedy. The prosecuting attorney said the defendant's decision may have been from a fundamental misunderstanding about the need for a safety stop (which was not needed) and his failure to appreciate the seriousness of the situation even when he saw the obvious symptoms.

Every diver should know that it's better to be bent at the surface than dead. It's madness when theory replaces common sense. The jury could not reach a verdict, and Craig was retried when medical experts, including IPE expert Dr Peter Wilmshurst and HSE diving inspector Mark Renouf, were of the view that the case had all the hallmarks of an instance of IPE (immersion pulmonary edema, or internal drowning) and Craig was found not guilty. But was he aware the only remedy for IPE includes total removal of a person so afflicted from the water?

An Expert Reacts

Bret Gilliam, who ran many diving companies such as UWATEC and SDI/TDI, with an unblemished safety record for 35 years, serves as a technical expert in litigation involving diving incidents. He told Undercurrent that:

"The diving industry has real issues with the current generation of dive professionals. The rate of accidents and fatalities has dramatically increased. Many instructors and vessel crew are simply not effectively trained and experienced. The dumbed-down curriculum of dive training applies to both instructors and divers. And it's not going to get better. It's tough to make a decent living in diving, and many instructors have exited for other opportunities. This has only led to even more inadequately qualified divers and instructors."

We might add that the U.K. government always holds a public inquiry into diving deaths, and their conclusions are published, hoping the problems won't be repeated. In the United States, there is no like process. Training agencies never disclose the details of diving deaths, so it takes a private multimillion-dollar lawsuit to get them to uncover problems. And it's the future trainees who will suffer.

- John Bantin

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