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Staying Calm Can Be Tricky

By Steve Lewis (Originally published in Fall 2022 issue).

Should divers have survival training? Let us know by completing the survey on the link below. Image: Russell Clark

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When it comes to the nuts and bolts of making it through to the safe and comfortable side of an emergency, scuba diving is way different to most other outdoor adventures. It’s not like back-country hiking, wilderness camping, technical mountain biking, white-water rafting, or a bunch of related activities. After things go absolutely pear-shaped, when someone has walked off grid and falls over the edge of the map or gets caught in an unseasonal snowstorm on the side of a mountain, the time available to process the situation and come up with a solution isn’t even close to the same as it would be for a diver. Broken gear, broken bones, getting lost, and a dramatic change in the weather, allow hours or even days for the unfortunate punter to work things out. In most survival emergencies under the waves, scuba divers have seconds or minutes.

There are other imperatives too; some related to time, some not so much so. One is training and how it’s processed and promoted; and perhaps most of all, how it’s labelled.

There was a full-page ad in one of the online mags that landed in my inbox a while ago. It was for a wilderness survival school. It’s a fine-looking ad. Lots of lean, clean, youthful folks dressed in North Face and Columbia fabrics portaging carbon-fibre canoes and carrying state-of-the-art backpacks. Not a scratch, chipped gunnel, unzipped pocket, mud, or grease-stain anywhere to be seen. 

The ad was selling three- and five-day training courses at something called a survival school. Although the images used were suspiciously art-directed and looked nothing like any outdoor trip I’ve been part of, they did manage to get the point across. Survival School seemed like an extremely good idea. According to the ad copy, participants would learn the basic skills needed to get by in Canada’s wilderness if something hit the fan. How to build shelter, forage for food, build a fire, tend to injuries, signal for help: all were included in the three and five-day package. It got me thinking about us and what training we have in our world to build similar, but more appropriate skills, to survive diving mishaps.

Marketing issue?

Looking at scuba and freediving courses, taking them apart and thinking about how each of them fits the needs of divers is part of the job for most of the folks working in a dive agency. Their opinions are what generates the push for new programs and what points out the need to update existing ones. 

Considering that, and on the face of it, there might be a hole. I can’t decide whether it’s in the curriculum or the way we push the whole concept of survival, but there’s a gap in there somewhere.

You don’t have to be a professor of semantics to know, words are powerful. Survival is an example of that. It’s a strong word with powerful associated mental images. Also, and maybe because of the images it conjures, it’s not part of the language we use to market diving. 

One question is: should it be, and if it were, what would have to change? How differently would we teach or talk to students? More to the point, would a class in survival techniques be popular with divers? Is it necessary, given what’s currently taught? What would it teach, since how to light a fire in a snowstorm at 1000 feet (3000m) on the side of a mountain with nothing but a candy bar, a handful of cotton wool, and a ski pole isn’t going to prepare a diver for the unexpected?

One can argue that a soft-edged form of survival school does exist in diving. If you have ever taken a technical diving class, you most likely sat through an accident analysis module. It’s an important part of those classes. Otto von Bismarck said a fool learns from his own experience; it’s better to learn from the experience of others. That’s the thinking behind that part of a tech-diving course. The shame is that the concept doesn’t extend to every level of diver training. Perhaps you’ve heard an instructor or dive shop owner laugh when the topics of accident analysis and risk management are mentioned, and say, “We don’t want to frighten customers away, do we?”

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

I don’t have an answer to that. But Ron Watters does.

Watters, Professor Emeritus of Outdoor Education at Idaho State University, when researching serious accidents in white-water paddling wrote: “The question is: how can we as outdoor educators prepare ourselves and our staff to make the ‘right’ decision when faced with a potentially dangerous situation? Experience is always the best teacher, but short of being involved or being on-hand during actual river accidents, the next best way of preparing ourselves is through the study of river accidents.”

That’s another vote in favour of accident analysis.

The Academy of Management Journal uses the term ‘vicarious learning’, to describe the process of “acquiring the complex sequence of behaviour without having to execute the behaviour”. I wonder if that would be more palatable. Since scuba has opted to sell scuba diving as ‘a low-risk activity’, would renaming an accident analysis module ‘Vicarious Learning’ mean divers would be cleared to learn a truth about diving starting from before their open water training? Before they hand over their credit card and sign a waiver?!

That’s a lot of questions, and maybe they are a result of overthinking the situation and overreacting to the growing number of diving-related fatalities. But they are fair questions. I can justify asking them.

The estimated hospital emergency room admissions in the US for the five years ending in 2020 indicated that bowling injuries logged more than 15,000 visits while scuba diving rolled in with just a handful more than 1,500. Statistically then, we could say something like “scuba diving is only a tenth as risky as tenpin bowling.” There are some dubious headlines kicking around dive agency marketing departments, but surely that wouldn’t make it out of the first creative meeting. Or perhaps it would. 

Missing from those numbers, of course, is the relative severity of the related injuries. A dislocated finger stuck in a bowling ball compared to problems from pathological air trapping or breath-holding while ascending from a dive, for instance. So, once again, any comparison between bowling and scuba diving would never be used. Would it? Nobody would have the stones to try that, surely?

If diving were in fact safer than bowling, nothing would need to change. But it is not. As I write this, four divers have died in the space of a couple of weeks in North America alone. No reports of four dead in a bowling alley in Ohio or any place else.

In his book, Deep Survival, Laurance Gonzales tells his readers only 10-20 percent of people can stay calm in a survival emergency. For everyone in that sort of situation, survival is a roll of the dice, but the odds in favour of a positive outcome improve for those who can keep their cool.

I’m unaware of similar stats for divers. My guess is that it’s a similar story. For the eight out of ten who don’t stay calm when faced with a situation that threatens their life, most muddle through somehow with nothing more than psychological scars. Injury enough, one suspects. Occasionally, they don’t make it at all. 

Gonzales and others who look analytically at risk, survival, and people’s reactions when faced with a nasty surprise, write about hot and cold cognition. Hot being when emotion drives our reaction to an event (let’s say a freeflow), compared to cold, which is when we stop, observe, think, and act. Put another way, executive brain function vs the freeze, fight, or flight signals we get from our limbic cortex.  

Specialized instruction may be an answer. At the very least I believe it would be an honest answer. That might be a good start.

Have your say – take part in Steve’s survey by clicking the link at the bottom of the page. Image: Russell Clark

Room to rethink

Let’s look again at what the dive industry offers in the way of training. Specifically training that includes survival skills. (By the way, there’s a link to an online survey at the end of this article. Filling it out will let me know if you too think we could do better.)

In open water training, we start off by making as sure as possible that everyone about to take part is fit. We ask them to sign a medical questionnaire. We point out that diving requires a moderate level of fitness, including the ability to swim.

Students are also instructed to dive with a buddy. In more advanced programs (cave diving for instance), it’s suggested that having two buddies, and diving as part of a team of three, is even better.

As a beginner, it’s also explained that diving in an overhead environment—a cavern, a cave, a wreck, or any kind of swim-through—requires special equipment, training, and experience well beyond open water or even open water instructor. The stats and basic common-sense shout loudly that following this advice is a great survival tactic.

Another bulkhead against surprises is to inspect gear and do a buddy check before starting a dive. Every dive. At the open water level these checks are basic but stressed. Various mnemonics and prompts are offered up to help the process along. In addition, many instructors have added to the basic training they deliver, the technical diver’s habit of using a physical checklist.

One final topic covered from the start is solid advice to test and get used to operating new gear, one piece at a time, in ‘a controlled environment’. For those of us without access to a sheltered, shallow cove with stellar visibility, and zero water movement, this means a swimming pool.

All this makes for a brilliant start. 

We also have more advanced courses referred to recue diver or the like. The desired outcome is to produce a diver capable of helping another diver to survive. These courses teach great additional skills. Roughly a third of the time spent of them covers recovery rather than rescue, but regardless, this type of program is firmly in place, is popular, and appropriate. Appropriate because rescue programs mostly reinforce the basics taught in the open water program. Repetition, reminders, practice, all perfectly bona fide. All with immense potential value.

Another bonus are courses that teach independent diving. However, given that diving is all about being part of a team when planning, executing, and debriefing a dive, some of these courses sell a mixed message. Solo diving has a rotten aura to it. But the idea that a diver can, when things fall off the rails, help herself and her teammates to survive by making the correct decisions, is golden. And because of this, we might best interpret this course as something other than solo. Perhaps this course is the closest we come to actual survival training and delivery of basic accident theory and awareness in regular diver instruction.

So, if the dive industry has all this going for it, why change things; why add another course?

The simple answer is that what’s in place is being ignored. And if not ignored, then fudged: seriously fudged.

The fudge factor

A very superficial analysis of the four recent deaths mentioned earlier seems to prove this. Sadly, two divers died in an overhead, when neither had training to be in that environment. One other seems to have had a serious health issue while attempting a dive in challenging conditions. The fourth started his dive disconnected from the rest of his team and died alone.

Without much effort and little prior knowledge, other than how to do a google search, anyone of us could pull up handfuls of miserable examples all following pathways to the same or similar outcomes.

Goethe writes by seeking and blundering we learn, but Goethe was a writer, not a diver. Blundering along, breaking the basic rules is not the best way to learn about diving, and it is not a part of a valid survival mindset. It will always be impossible to stop all blundering, but we can at very least hope to lessen its prevalence and impact. Death by errors of omission, commission, or misadventure and oversight are a wholly unacceptable outcome to someone going for a recreational dive. Explorers may have an excuse to die. Their excuses may be weak and filled with hubris and ego, but they are explorers and as such have prepared themselves to face a crushing outcome. They have by the very nature of what they do, made a statement of intent. Not an intent to die, but a clear agreement that they understand and have accepted the odds. That they understand where the limits are and have done and will do what is possible to work around them. Done everything possible to survive. And are willingly throwing dice and gambling fate.

The person who drives a cement truck or arranges flowers or works in a hospital, coffee shop, or bakery does none of that. They went for a bimble and died. I cannot imagine how removed from what they projected as a future reality that outcome would be.

So where does that leave us? Another question. 

The best answer I have is more training. There is an irony or contradiction of terms or some flaw of logic in that argument but it’s the best I can do.

Perhaps there’s room for a restructured program or maybe a three-day workshop format built around the concept of independence and awareness. A course that admits Gonzales’ suggestion that fear puts you in your place and gives you the humility you need to see things in perspective as they are.

That may be a workable solution. A real survival school for divers. Socrates said I cannot teach anybody anything, I can just make them think. That’s true but we need a stronger catalyst. We need to get more people to think. 

Participate in Steve’s survey here.

Steve Lewis is an author, cave diver, life coach and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. His day-job as Director Diver Training for RAID International keeps him busy, but not too busy to meditate daily using yet another method of focusing his mind!

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