Text by Jeremy Heywood
Correction: When this story appeared in DIVER Volume 37 Number 4, Dr. Mica Endsley was inadvertently referred to as he, not she. We apologize for this error.
Experts agree: situation awareness is critically important to diver safety. But because it’s regarded as an advanced skill gained through experience it’s not included in the entry-level diver-training curriculum. As the complexity of recreational and tec/rec diving activities and equipment continue to increase, does this critical contradiction become a paradox we can no longer ignore.
Situation awareness (SA), or situational awareness in diving circles, is “knowing what is going on around you”, according to an expert view in Theoretical Underpinnings of Situation Awareness: A Critical Review. More precisely it’s the “perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future,” according to the authors of Design and Evaluation for Situation Awareness Enhancement. Operators in rigorous, data intensive vocations such as military combat and flying air (and space) craft have long understood that effective SA plays a vital role in making accurate decisions. Every diver would be served well to understand this too.
“SA plays a big part in the dive and dive planning,” says Chief Petty Officer Second Class Rob DeProy, Chief Diver for the Mine Countermeasures Department at the Royal Canadian Navy’s Fleet Diving Unit (Pacific). “With good SA the dive team can plan for such things as current, low visibility and potential failures in-water.” DeProy believes that SA is equally important in the recreational realm because sport divers lack the considerable ‘SA-boosting’ resources available to Navy divers such as surface support and reliable communications gear.
Indeed, today’s divers are presented with an overwhelming amount of information to process during each trip into the “unforgiving alien world,” as DeProy describes the aquatic environment. They must practice the cornerstone precepts of diving safety: breathe always – never hold your breath, equalize early and often, ascend slowly. They must be acutely aware of their surroundings in three dimensions. They must continually monitor their depth, time and decompression status, more often than not using a dive computer or computers that present them with a large amount of data on a tiny screen. They must track the status of their buddy. And they must do all this while breathing compressed gas from an intricate piece of equipment while remaining constantly vigilant for signs of physiological perils such as narcosis, decompression sickness and cold. Good SA allows divers to perceive useful information, comprehend its importance and project possible future outcomes, therefore enabling effective decision making.
“I think the most important thing that you can train experienced divers to do is to work on projection and contingency planning skills,” says Dr. Mica R. Endsley, president of SA Technologies. Acknowledged as a world leader in the study of SA, Endsley told DIVER that, “People with the highest levels of SA, in every domain we have studied, are those who spend their time projecting ahead to what could possibly happen or go wrong and to figure out in advance what they would do in that situation. It makes decision making under often very stressful conditions much easier and much faster,” she said. “Even experienced divers who panic or don’t think ahead can get into trouble quickly,” she notes, adding, “This is a quite trainable skill that can be taught and reinforced during training and regular dives.”
Training and Experience
The importance of SA for divers seems obvious, but can it really be taught? Ocean Quest Dive Centre’s Greg McCracken, a PADI Course Director and DSAT Technical Instructor Trainer, thinks that SA should be introduced to entry level divers. “It’s a very important aspect of diving and it may also be one of the most difficult skills to acquire,” he said. McCracken feels that in order to develop SA, divers need to follow a specific training path and gain experience. “Both are essential,” he emphasizes.
So, the paradox: SA provides concrete benefits for improving diver safety while remaining a maddeningly intangible skill, seemingly beyond the reach of the entry-level diver. It’s true that some implicit awareness of the situation is a required part of entry-level scuba training. In order to maintain contact with a buddy, there must be awareness of his or her whereabouts. There must be an awareness of the submersible pressure gauge (SPG) dial to avoid running out of breathing gas, etc. However, no entry-level students are trained how to collect, evaluate, plan and act in an organized way on all of the disparate pieces of information presented during a dive.
Gavin Wuttken, Diving Safety Officer at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, also believes that entry level divers should receive instruction in SA and its general principles, and must, “Be evaluated in confined and open water on their ability to recognize, evaluate and act, based on data gathered.” He focuses his students’ thinking about SA by asking them after a dive to recall details about physiology, equipment, environmental conditions, animal behaviour and contingency planning. Such an approach is simple and intuitive, and reinforces the divers’ attention to detail on subsequent dives. This ‘recall’ exercise strengthens the framework for data acquisition and evaluation. He also thinks that the study of SA should continue through dive certification levels where it can be explored more deeply with a “stronger emphasis and evaluation on probability/contingency planning.”
Although SA is not presented as a stand-alone topic in the PADI Open Water Diver course, Randy Giles, Regional Manager for PADI Canada, agrees it is an important component of any diver-training course. “Whether integrated into a scuba diving course curriculum or pulled out as a separate topic within that curriculum, SA remains an important part of the diver safety toolkit and is a critical topic of discourse that we should continue to encourage,” Giles says.
Identifying how Endsley’s so-called SA demons, discussed in her co-authored book Designing for Situation Awareness: An approach to User Centered Design, affect new divers, and developing exercises to address them, may be a useful starting point for integration of focused SA training into the mainstream entry-level diver curriculum. For instance, one SA Demon is ‘attentional tunneling’, or fixating on one set of information to the exclusion of others. To combat this tendency in new divers, perhaps the ubiquitous ‘breathe always, never hold your breath’ mantra could become ‘breathe always, never hold your breath and always look around’. In other words, if new divers are asked to incorporate into their mental routine a phrase that reminds them that not holding their breath will reduce their chance of experiencing a devastating lung-over pressure injury, then why not also include one that will increase their chance of making the right decision during a stressful event? Wuttken’s straightforward recall exercise also tackles attentional tunneling by prompting divers to consider a wide array of dive data, and data overload, by helping divers identify useful rather than extraneous information.
Modifying the entry level curriculum to deal with these SA demons could be a useful strategy for strengthening the integration of SA into everyday diving activities, especially for that majority of divers who never progress past the basic certification. Understanding the foundation theory of SA is a useful pursuit for the advanced practitioner, but it is the dissemination and implementation of clear and simple techniques that will inoculate the new diver with SA. In turn, SA will improve the safety of diving in general, just as it has done for a host of other complex occupations.
Situational Awareness Demons
- Attentional tunneling: fixating on one set of information to the exclusion of others.
- Requisite memory trap: relying on limited short-term (working) memory.
- Stressors: some stressors reduce the capacity to process information.
- Data overload: overwhelming amounts of data can reduce SA.
- Misplaced salience: Flashing red lights can be useful. Or not.
- Complexity creep: systems with too many features make it difficult to develop an accurate mental model of how the system works.
- Errant mental model: use of the wrong mental model leads to misinterpretation of information.
- Out-of-the-loop syndrome: automation can undermine SA.
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