How Safe Is Your Dive Operator?

By John Francis

23 things to look for before you step aboard another dive boat.

It's a simple question with a complicated answer: How safe is your dive operator? The answer basically comes down to three issues: Do they have the right equipment? Do they have the right people? And do they have plans for minimizing danger and dealing with problems when they occur.

Keep in mind that there is no absolute safety. A boat or a dive operation, like a bathtub or a stepladder, can be "safer," but never 100 percent "safe." Do They Have the Right Equipment? A boat needs more than a watertight hull to be reasonably safe, and a dive boat needs more special equipment than a scuba flag. Look for these items:

Fire extinguisher. Fire, not leaking water, is the No. 1 danger to boats. Even the smallest dive boat should have a fire extinguisher mounted in plain sight. Look for it.

Life jackets. That there must be a life jacket for every person on board has been a no-brainer since the Titanic. The crew should show you where the life jackets are located.

First-aid kit. Another no-brainer. Serious wounds are rare in diving, but it should be possible to stop the bleeding for that long trip back to the dock.

Radio. In case of danger to the boat or a medical emergency on board, a radio is essential. It will be apparent by its antenna or by taking a quick look at the steering station.

U.S. Coast Guard inspection certificate. Of course the certificate is not "equipment" itself, but it assures that other important equipment like engines, pumps and safety gear have been inspected and are working properly. Every vessel operating from a U.S. port and carrying more than six passengers for hire must be inspected and must post the certificate in a prominent place. Smaller U.S. vessels need not be inspected, but may well be safe, particularly close to shore. Vessels in foreign waters may or may not be subject to local inspections.

Oxygen. It is essential first aid for almost all decompression illnesses. Look for the green or orange case, or ask. No dive boat should leave the dock without it.

Nonskid decks. When geared up, divers are top-heavy, and decks pitch and roll. Decks should have a rough, nonskid surface. Look for plenty of handholds and few sharp edges and "toe-stubbers."

Adequate dive platform and ladder. Your greatest chance of injury probably comes when you reboard the boat after your dive because you're tired, your gear is heavy and the boat is pitching. The platform should be large, have a nonskid surface, and be positioned close to the water surface. Ladders to the platform, or from the platform to the deck, should be rugged and rigid, with good handholds.

Ascent/descent lines, deco bar, current lines. The first helps you control your vertical velocity to limit the risks of ear barotrauma and DCI. The deco bar encourages safety stops. The current line can be vital to a tired diver fighting a current back to the boat. It should drift back from the boat, floating on the surface, and should terminate in a large, visible float. Some boats also use a "tag line" or "head line" from the stern of the boat to the anchor line, which serves as a guide in a current so that it is easier to reach the anchor line for ascents and descents. The purpose is the same: to free divers from having to fight a current with their fins.

Spacious, well-designed gear stations. More than comfort is at stake. You need enough space to work methodically in order to gear up correctly. Tanks should be stored securely so they don't fall when the boat rolls. To minimize the risk of back injury or falling down or dropping a tank on a foot, you should be able to put on the scuba unit from a sitting position.

Extras. Bigger boats can and should have more safety gear, like radar, EPIRB (an automatic distress beacon in case of sinking), twin engines (for redundancy), and a dinghy or chase boat.

Do They Have the Right People? It's a question of both quantity and quality.

Two "bodies." Dive boats, no matter how small, should carry at least two crew members, if at all possible. Some very small boats run with just one combined captain/divemaster, who usually doesn't dive. In case of an emergency, passengers may be called upon to help. You decide, based on how confident you are of your fellow divers, but one crew member is less than ideal, two (captain and divemaster) is better. Obviously, more divers call for more crew.

Licensed captain. Any vessel carrying passengers for hire from U.S. ports must have a captain licensed by the Coast Guard. His license will be posted, so look for it. A Coast Guard license is evidence of technical knowledge plus considerable experience?t least 720 days at sea in the case of the popular 50-ton license, for example. And consider this: If the captain is not licensed, the boat cannot have liability insurance.

Certified divemaster. Divemaster training includes skills that experience alone might not provide, like rescue techniques, CPR, first aid and knowing the symptoms of DCI. An important part of it is people management: recognizing every diver reaction from denial to panic and dealing with them. On a good day almost anybody could act as divemaster. It's what happens on the bad days that matters.

Assistance on the dive platform. A crew member should be detailed to help divers as they enter the water and, more important, as they reboard the boat. This goes beyond taking your fins from you. The real purpose is to prevent slip-and-fall accidents on the platform and ladders.

Do They Have a Plan? The best people with the best equipment can fail in a crisis if they haven't rehearsed what to do. If, on the other hand, they follow thought-out procedures for routine operations, the crisis may never arise. The following indicate that the dive operation is organized to anticipate and prevent trouble:

Boat safety briefing. Before leaving the dock, the captain should make a safety announcement. He should tell you where the life jackets and the first-aid kit are stored, warn you of any unusual safety hazards and identify the crew members.

Dive briefing. The quality of the dive briefing is an important indication of how serious this operation is about safety. The divemaster should cover depth at the site, visibility, currents and other potential hazards. He should explain the procedures for entering and leaving the water, and point out which doors should be used. Almost as important, the divemaster should circulate among the divers before and after the formal briefing to get acquainted and gauge their experience and "comfort level."

Diver accounting system. Divemasters need to know that every diver who has entered the water has returned to the boat at the end of the dive. When there are more than six divers, an "eyeball" count is not good enough. There must be a physical count system, like an audible roll call or an ID tag system. How seriously the divemaster takes this?hether he insists on following the procedure even when it's "obvious" that everyone is present?s a good indication of how disciplined the operation is about safety.

Emergency management plan. A radio will be vital equipment in case of emergency, but does the crew know who to call? Where is the closest port with emergency medical treatment? How to prepare the boat for helicopter evacuation? Who administers first aid and who manages the other divers? All this should be decided in advance, and a written plan should be on the boat. A casual question to the divemaster like, "Say, what would you do if ... ?" might elicit whether there is such a plan.

An Unsafe Dive Boat Can you judge a book by its cover? Sometimes.

The boat looks generally battered and unpainted. A captain might be careless about the cosmetic appearance of his boat, but fastidious about maintaining his pumps and filters. More likely, if he neglects what the customers can see, he neglects what they can't see, also.

Broken handholds. They sometimes break because they take a lot of stress, but they must be repaired immediately for the same reason.

Engine is slow to start and smokes excessively. Especially with diesels, how much cranking it takes to start it indicates how worn out it is. Smoking also indicates trouble, and sooner or later it won't start at all. That's not the time when you want to be aboard, out at sea, with bad weather closing in.

Shouting and arm waving. When they accompany routine operations like leaving the dock and setting the anchor, you should suspect the crew is not well-trained. What will happen in an emergency?

The crew is reluctant to answer safety questions. Operators who are serious about safety will be happy to brag about it. If instead they are defensive, evasive or seem to feel that it's none of your business, maybe you should shop elsewhere.

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