Suggestions for avoiding deaths or accidents during basic scuba diving courses are presented. Beginners should see to it that their instructors are properly certified and insured. They can also inquire about the current status of their teachers through diving associations. The dive sites should be chosen based on divers’ skills and experience. There must be means of communications with other people, whether through two-way radios or cellular telephones. Dive operators or instructors must have an emergency plan and the necessary equipment needed to deal with any emergency.

SETTING THE STAGE

The students in an entry-level scuba diving course had received complete classroom and pool training and were ready for their open-water training, scheduled as a shore dive in a cove that was part of a state park. The day was clear, sunny and windy, with a surge and surface chop evident on the water. This was not unusual for the area, but the seas were rougher than normal.

After the students carried their gear to the entry point on one side of the cove, the instructor gave a briefing from a cliff overlooking the cove. From here, he pointed out the important features of the dive site – the entry point, the sheer cliffs of the cove, and the wash tunnel opening into the cove. Because the surf was up, water was rushing through the tunnel with great force.

THE DIVE

After gearing up, the 12 students entered the water with the instructor from the lee side of the headland and gathered on the surface near a dense kelp bed. In order to swim to a clear area for skills training, they had to pass the wash tunnel and around the end of the kelp bed. The instructor had all divers submerge and make the swim under water.

After completing the underwater swim, the instructor gathered the students together and started practicing skills. After a while, he realized there was an odd number of students. Having no assistant, he surfaced with the entire class to look for the missing student.

When the group surfaced, passersby started yelling and pointing to a diver floating in the cove. The instructor told the students to follow him as he swam to the diver – the missing student, unconscious and not breathing.

Avoiding deaths or accidents during basic scuba diving courses

RESCUE ANALYSIS

The instructor towed the unconscious diver back to the entry point with the students following. Bystanders came to the water and helped pull the victim out of the water, and CPR was begun. Because no one had a phone or radio to call for help, a student ran to his car, parked a considerable distance up the hill, then drove to a restaurant some distance away to call 911.

The first public service professionals to arrive were park rangers. They knew that it would take far too long for an ambulance to reach the remote location, so they called for a helicopter. But a helicopter would not be able to land in the restricted cove area, so the victim had to be carried up to the highway. Transferring the victim caused multiple interruptions in the administering of CPR.

The helicopter flew the student diver to the nearest hospital, where she was pronounced dead on arrival.

INVESTIGATION AND LEGAL ACTION

The instructor’s training association began an investigation into the instructor’s behavior, and the victim’s family brought a legal action against the instructor, the instructor association and the state park. Investigation revealed that:

* The instructor had changed training associations after he’d had problems with the prior association.

* The instructor had an ethics action pending with his current association concerning an injury to another student that occurred under questionable environmental conditions.

* The instructor had exceeded the maximum allowed student-to-instructor ratio of 8-to-1 for this dive. He had also violated the local standard of care, which would have required a lower ratio or the use of an assistant due to the demanding environmental conditions.

* On the day of the dive, the instructor did not have a written emergency plan, a first-aid kit, an oxygen unit, a float with a flag or a way to call for assistance.

* The dive site was not appropriate for conducting entry-level training.

* The student diver who was lost had not gone under water with the rest of the class, but had been driven by the wind, seas and current through the wash tunnel by herself, while onlookers watched.

The out-of-court settlement reached on behalf of the student’s family by the several defendants included financial compensation, a change in the park’s rules regarding access to the dive site and the posting of warning signs. Upon completion of the association’s investigation, the instructor was permanently expelled.

LESSONS FOR LIFE

* If you or someone you know is going to take a scuba course, you have the right to see the instructor’s current certification and proof of insurance. You can also call the instructor’s association to determine if the instructor is in good standing.

* Select dive sites that are suitable to your skills, experience and planned activities.

* Have communications, no matter where you dive. This could be a radio, cell phone or nearby phone; be sure that the communications actually work.

* Be sure that any dive operator or instructor you dive with has an emergency plan and the equipment to back it up.

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