Diver Down - Risks vs. Benefits
The importance of making a clear-eyed analysis of risks and benefits when considering any dive is a matter of life and death.
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Lessons for Life – Dive Accidents, Close Calls & How You Can Avoid Them
by Mike Ange
Each Diver Down case presented on Seaduction.com is written by the author of "Lessons for Life" the #1 column at SCUBA Diving Magazine from 2001 -2009. Each case is based on a real incident that has been thoroughly investigated through official sources and the accounts of participants and witnesses. Names and some minor details have been changed to protect victims and their families.
Risk v Benefit
As I write this (late November, 2009), Florida divers are still reeling from the news of three separate fatal diving accidents in a single weekend. Because the facts of these cases cases are not yet fully known, we’ll forgo the usual Lessons analysis and instead, discuss the importance of pre-dive planning, in particular, the importance of making a clear-eyed analysis of risks and benefits when considering any dive.
Often, the more desirable the dive, the greater the inherent risk. For example, diving to four feet in your swimming pool has very little risk; however, it is also probably not the most desirable way to spend your Saturday afternoon. There are thousands of more desirable, low-risk dives in the shallow tropical waters spanning the earth. But if you are into wrecks, where generally the water is deeper and the conditions more variable, the risks start to go up. If you are into penetrating the interior of the wreck, there is a whole new world of interest and intrigue to explore -- and thousands of hazards that come with it.
It should also be obvious to divers that as the risk factors of a dive increase, so do the requirements for more training, equipment and dive planning. Unfortunately, in the U.S. and increasingly in other parts of the world, we live with a mentality that anytime something bad happens, there must be someone to blame (read: sue) and generally speaking, there is. The trend is to apply what the lawyers call the “deep pockets” rule. When a diver dies, the first reaction is look for equipment failure or a training deficit so that liability can be assigned. The hunt for a responsible party may know no bounds. Was the charter operator negligent? Was the bed in the hotel too lumpy? Was the food in the restaurant the previous evening tainted in some way?
Rarely do we ever discuss that taboo phrase: personal responsibility. In a world free of personal responsibility and full of lawyers willing to work on a contingency basis, we assume we’re safe because, hey, we can always sue! If the boat captain decides to run a charter with me on the boat, the dive must be safe for me because the captain must be concerned about liability, and therefore he’ll protect me – even from myself.
It has not always been this way. Once upon a time, people who undertook adventurous activities were actual adventurers. They sought out the proper training, the proper equipment, analyzed the risk factors, prepared themselves and then went out and enjoyed themselves with a full understanding of the risks they were taking. But it seems that is no longer a part of our culture. We expect a magic pill or a magic regulator to solve all of our problems without any effort or pre-planning on our part. But the reality of diving, as any tech diver will tell you, is that it hurts to blindly rely on someone else to take responsibility for your safety. And, in some cases, it can hurt a great deal.
So, let’s put a little reality back in diving:
If you attempt to complete a dive that you are not properly trained for and you injure or kill yourself on that dive, you are responsible for your own negligence. It’s up to you to prevent your injury with proper training.
- If you have a sedentary lifestyle and never exercise, then you step off the boat into a three-knot current, you are responsible for your own negligence. So prevent your injury by avoiding the dive or getting yourself into better shape.
- If you are 40 or 50 pounds overweight when you make a deep dive, run out of air, and injure or kill yourself as a result, you are responsible for your own negligence. So prevent your death by adjusting the plan or improving your water skills and fitness level.
These examples demonstrate the crux of risk/benefit analysis – making sound decisions and taking responsibility for those decisions. It is unreasonable to expect another person to make risk-acceptance decisions for you, but that so often is what divers do. If you are not in physical condition to make a challenging dive, for example, most boat captains are not going to put themselves in the no-win situation of making that decision for you. As it should be, the captain considers this an issue of personal responsibility. If you have a heart condition, lung disease or any other disorder that impacts your safety in the water, neither the charter operator nor the diving instructor is qualified to assess your risk factors. You need to address them with your personal physician and then make a decision on which dives you are physically able to attempt. If your current health situation does not allow you to meet your diving goals safely, start a fitness program!
Based on the facts in all the cases I’ve analyzed over the years, I’m willing to bet that poor pre-dive decisions kill more divers than equipment failures, poor instruction and negligent charter operators combined. Worse, when a diver puts himself at risk on a dive he has no business attempting, he’s not the only one that suffers. He also puts at risk the life of his buddy and all of the professionals who will do what they can in an attempt to rescue him.
It is tragic when any diver dies, but it is doubly so when a diver dies in a predictable and preventable manner or when a would-be rescuer is seriously injured or killed. Ultimately, your safety is solely your responsibility. So, think before you go. Plan before you go. Prepare before you go. And, honestly ask yourself – are you really ready to face the risks of the dive?
If there’s any doubt, sit it out. There will always be another opportunity to dive, and a day spent sipping margaritas on the beach is far better than becoming the subject of a future “Lessons for Life.”
Lessons for Life
- Understand and analyze the risk of any dive during the planning phase.
- Understand and HONESTLY evaluate your personal risk factors during the planning phase of your dive.
- Adjust your dive plan to keep the risk parameters within acceptable limits.
- Plan your dives with a reserve of gas and physical endurance in mind – conditions change during the dive and you need that reserve to deal with worsening conditions when they occur.
- Good health and good conditioning are vitally important. Get your body up to speed before you find yourself speeding along in a current.
- Take responsibility for your own decisions and your own actions. Let’s start a new paradigm where finding a scapegoat is politically incorrect.