For new scuba divers, taking a rescue diving course could save lives

Ken Avalos, from Tampa, acts like a diver panicking during a recent rescue diving exercise.
Ken Avalos, from Tampa, acts like a diver panicking during a recent rescue diving exercise. Keysinfonet.com

The middle-aged woman scuba diver popped up, ripped off her mask, pulled out her regulator mouthpiece and, with glazed eyes, started madly kicking to keep her head above water.

I happen to be teaching a rescue diver course and was swimming on the surface near were the woman came up.

Approaching from a safe distance, I told her to calm down and asked if she was OK — no response. Then, I firmly instructed her to inflate her buoyancy control device (BCD), again — no response.

I circled behind her (so she wouldn’t climb on me), grabbed a hold of her air tank with my knees to keep her secure, and inflated her BCD. After she calmed down, we helped her to shore and then removed her dive gear. She had not inhaled water. We gave her an injury assessment and she seemed fine. We suggested that she make an appointment with her doctor just to be sure.

Not all diving-related incidents have a happy ending, as exemplified by this headline: “Panicking Florida woman dies during Keys diving trip, (Miami Herald, Feb. 9, 2015). The story reports the 41-year-old woman jumped into the water and began panicking. A group pulled her back onto the boat, but by then she was unconscious. Paramedics transported her to a local hospital, where she died (http://goo.gl/1rwEj3).

After getting a taste of scuba diving, many new divers ask, “What course should I take next?”

There are many courses to choose from after initial certification, including the next level, the advanced open-water course, and others including enriched air or nitrox, photography, wreck, deep, night, navigation, naturalist, rescue diver and on and on. Some require the advanced open water certification as a prerequisite, others don’t.

Having taught scuba diving for a long time, I have my own bias as to the “next course” — rescue diver, which has certification as an advanced open water diver as a prerequisite.

I highly recommend the rescue diver certification to anyone who plans to keep diving and wants to be a better, safer and more confident diver.

The rescue diver course, which is the third-level qualification in the American international system, is for recreational divers. It does not mean you are ready to jump into the ocean like a Coast Guard rescue swimmer as portrayed by Kevin Costner in the 2006 movie The Guardian.

But, it does teach you to how to rescue yourself if something goes wrong on a dive, and how to rescue a tired, terrified or unresponsive diver. The knowledge you gain can mean the difference between life and death in an emergency situation.

Several scuba diving agencies including the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), Scuba Schools International (SSI), and Scuba Divers International/Technical Divers International (SDI/TTI) teach the rescue diving course.

The PADI rescue diver courses consist of academic, confined water (pool-like conditions) and open-water experiences.

To enroll in a rescue diver class, you are required to be certified in first aid and CPR or to complete the training as part of the course.

Academic training provided by PADI, which can be completed online, includes: the psychology of rescue, recognizing diver stress, accident management, assisting responsive and unresponsive divers at the surface and underwater, equipment problems, oxygen delivery systems, missing diver procedures, responding to diver emergencies and in-water rescue breathing.

Next comes in-water exercises including: self-rescue; assisting a tired diver; assisting a panicked diver; responding from shore, boat or dock; non-swimming assists, including reaches or extensions; distressed diver underwater; missing diver; surfacing the unresponsive diver; assisting the unresponsive diver at the surface; exiting the unresponsive diver; first aid for pressure-related injuries and oxygen administration; and response from shore or boat to an unresponsive (non-breathing) diver at the surface.

The final portion of the PADI rescue diver course consists of two realistic scenarios — dealing with unresponsive divers at the surface and underwater.

As with all other diving courses, you should be in good physical health if you plan to take a rescue diver course.

Recently, I read about a new diver who apparently drowned while on an underwater dive platform in an inland dive park. The story said the diver’s mask had started to flood and his friend, who didn’t have much more diving experience, swam away under water to obtain help from more experienced divers who had accompanied the two less-experienced divers to the dive park.

When the divers returned, the diver with the flooded mask was dead. A trained rescue diver, or even a more experienced diver, could have prevented this tragedy. (For non-divers reading this, a student diver must completely remove, replace and clear his or her mask of water while under water to become certified.)

The rescue diver course is often described as challenging and demanding, but extremely rewarding once the requirements have been met.

Even if you don’t take the rescue course, you should keep yourself and your equipment in good condition, plan your dive and dive your plan, conduct a predive check before every dive, and practice basic skills such as mask clearing and use of alternate air sources. Above all, if you find yourself in a difficult situation, stop, think and then act. In scuba diving, panic can kill you.

For more on becoming a rescue diver see: PADI, www.padi.com, the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), www.naui.org, SSI- Scuba Schools International, www.divessi.com, or SDI/TDI- the Scuba Divers International/Technical Divers International (www.tdisdi.com).

Related stories from Miami Herald