An effective dive rescue or search operation requires training, experience, planning and proper equipment. Divers should not join in any dive rescue operation unless the person is qualified and prepared to do so. Some of the important training courses a diver should take are first aid and oxygen administration. Without a well-conceived plan, rescue dives could lead to more problems and injuries for those involved. Moreover, someone should be put in charge during rescue operations.
SETTING THE STAGE
It was a beautiful spring day at an offshore island dive location. The water was clear, cold and calm, and several dive boats from the mainland had anchored in the lee of a headland.
The popular dive site features small shallow sea caves and a deep drop-off that leads to ledges, walls and a small canyon. The depth at the point quickly drops from 60 to 130 feet and then levels to a more gradual slope continuing on beyond 200 feet. A strong current was running from west to east just off the headland. Divers were continuously coming and going from all of the dive boats as the day progressed.
When one boat reported that a diver had returned without his buddy, there was some confusion among the boats, because during the prior week a diver had returned to the wrong boat. Soon, more than a dozen eager divers volunteered to conduct a search. These divers entered the water from three different boats. However, some were without a buddy. In addition, there was no agreed-upon search pattern, no consideration for decompression status, and no single person in charge.
A diver swimming solo found the missing diver at over 90 feet, on the bottom – regulator out, weight belt on and water in his mask. Having never performed a rescue before, the diver was frightened and unsure about what to do. He grabbed the unconscious diver and swam hard for the surface. After a significant struggle, the two of them arrived at the surface and were carried away by the current. Divers from another boat saw that the rescuer was now in trouble and went to his aid. The two victims were towed to the nearest boat, their gear was stripped off and CPR was started on the missing diver. CPR and other first aid measures were hindered by the victim regurgitating and the confusion about which divers were where.
Meanwhile, the rescuing diver began exhibiting signs and symptoms of decompression sickness(DCS). This not only added to the confusion, but created and compounded a new set of problems – there was no operational recompression chamber nearby and the Coast Guard did not have a helicopter available for transport.
No one knew how many divers were in the water or which boats divers were now on, causing a significant delay before it was discovered that one of the other rescue divers was also missing. Yet another ill-conceived search began. This time, two buddy divers in the search group ran low on air, but made a successful emergency ascent.
When a Coast Guard cutter arrived on site, the officer in charge ordered all divers out of the water and discontinued the underwater search. Both the rescue diver suffering from DCS and the original victim were transported to the mainland. The diver with DCS was successfully treated later that day in a U.S. Navy chamber, while the other diver was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital. The other missing diver was never found, despite an extensive search by commercial divers over the next several days.
A coroner’s inquest was held to determine how the deaths occurred, but no legal action came of the tragedy.
A missing diver is a serious concern, but should not lead to other injuries. Effective searching takes training, experience, proper equipment and planning. Before starting a search, some very specific questions must first be answered:
- Is the diver in fact missing?
- Where was the diver last seen?
- What was the dive plan of the missing diver?
- How much air did the missing diver have available?
- Of those divers available, who is qualified to search?
- Of those qualified, what is their decompression status?
- What other support is available, such as EMS, Coast Guard and lookouts?
- Who will be in charge of the search?
Making a risk-vs-benefit decision is extremely important during missing diver searches. It doesn’t make sense for divers to be injured or killed in a misguided effort to save a missing diver.
LESSONS FOR LIFE
* Among the most valuable courses you can take, for yourself and others, are: diver rescue, first aid, CPR and oxygen administration. These will help you prevent accidents and deal with them when they do occur. These courses also provide valuable training for non-diving emergencies.
* Do not engage in missing-diver searches unless you are qualified and prepared to do so.
* All dives should have a plan, and rescue dives in particular should have a well-conceived plan.
* Violating decompression requirements is a calculated risk that needs careful consideration.
* Someone needs to be in charge during rescue operations.
* Use buoyancy to help with ascents and to become positive on the surface during a rescue.