Checklists and Acronyms - A diver's guide to success.
The year was 1998. We were at Shaw's Cove in Laguna Beach, California. My buddy and I had about 30 dives under our belt and were excited to get an early morning dive before the work day started. We grabbed tanks, put our gear together, and hit the water as quickly as we could. The faster we got in, the more time we could spend exploring! We entered and went to the rock where most divers descend to start their adventures. We planned to go through the famous cut out at Shaw's Cove. This provides beautiful photos and feels like you are walking through a hallway with 20ft tall walls. It's a definite can't miss opportunity for the advanced divers that frequent Shaw's Cove.
My buddy meandered ahead of me and got out of sight as we entered the initial chamber. We were comfortably diving together and losing sight of him for a minute didn't bother me. Of course, that was before the air stopped...
I heard a loud wheeze-like sound first and thought something was wrong with my regulator. I took it out for a split second; looked at it, purged it, and threw it back in my mouth. On that subsequent breath, there was nothing. Just an audible click as the regulator had clearly malfunctioned. I looked at the SPG and saw the big fat ZERO. I couldn't go straight up. The ascent would have landed me right on top of wave action and rocks, a place that I didn't need to be. My dive buddy was facing forward and not paying attention. He had no reason to look back yet knowing that I would be there and that we had just entered.
My face began to turn red as I tried to figure out what to do. These decisions took milliseconds, but they felt like days. I decided that I would need to conduct a Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent (CESA). But, I would have to do it at an angle to get safely clear of the rocks. My airway opened up as I felt for some semblance of oxygen while I started the swim back out of the area. I was frantically kicking and could feel the pain of needing to breath while focusing on the light that was above me. In a matter of seconds, I was breaching the surface and gasping for air. I kept kicking while orally inflating my BCD to get me to float. Luckily, we were in about 10 feet of water when this happened and I only had about 20 feet to reach the surface safely. The episode took every ounce of energy from me as the adrenaline coursed through my body. I lay on the surface looking up at the sky trying to regain my heart rate through breathing. Within just a few seconds, my dive buddy surfaced and made his way to me.
I explained away the problem. I said something was wrong with my regulator and that I needed to cancel and go back to the beachhead. I was equal parts embarrassed, scared and anxious. We started kicking back to shore and the only thing seared into my brain was the fact that I had put a nearly empty tank on my scuba set up and entered the water. I never checked with my buddy that there was air present via my SPG, I never bothered to conduct the simplest of tests to ensure a safe dive. While in water too deep to stand up in, I rendered my nearly empty tank, completely empty. Embarrassed indeed.
I was thankful for my training up to that point. I had safely got myself to the surface and was able to effectively conduct a self-rescue to reduce the anxiety and stress. More importantly, I didn't put my buddy into a situation that would require his assistance. I felt like a bonehead. I remember sitting on the tailgate of my truck with my gear laying in front me; the empty tank still attached to the BCD. I could hear my instructor's mantra. It was at that moment that I realized how indelible certain aspects of a diver's toolbox were of utmost importance. In a matter of seconds, my situation had changed and I needed to quickly react to get myself to safety.
This is where a checklist and making safe habits will greatly reduce risk and increase the one thing we love doing as divers, having fun! In 1998, I was more experienced than the average Open Water Diver, but I was not close to the comfort level of a professional or more frequent diver out on the ocean. Had I invested my time and knowledge towards a checklist, I would have never entered the water with a used tank. The risk mitigation would have greatly reduced.
When pilots prepare for a flight, they carry a tiny book with them known as a flight checklist. These vary from aircraft to aircraft, but the intent is the same. It provides the pilots with a systematic method of ensuring the safety of the airframe and the flight itself. These checklists range from pre-flight, post-flight to emergency procedures. The most amazing thing is that you'll see a pilot with 40 years of flying experience refer to their checklists just like a pilot with a few flights under their belt. This standardization has reduced the risk of the pilot, crew and passengers throughout the years. In many instances, when an emergency arises, you'll hear testimonies discussing the importance of a checklist and how it assisted the pilot with making split second decisions.
In diving, these checklists can reduce anxiety, risk and provide a safe diving environment; they can range from equipment checks to procedures. If you've ever gone on a trip and gotten there only to find that a critical component of an enjoyable vacation was missing because you left it at home; then you can relate! Having a checklist handy will help with every safe diver. As you do an activity more often, you'll find that complacency has a tendency of creeping into your daily habits. You see the same thing over and over again, you'll find that you may be skipping critical steps that are hidden until they fail. This is why it is important to keep a maintenance schedule of your equipment. Something that can be done with a checklist! For this diver, December is timeframe that all items go into service. Regardless of what item it is in my arsenal of dive gear, I give myself until 31 December to get it serviced. As a dive professional, we tend to dive more than the average diver and our gear spends a lot of time wet. This can pose hidden risks to an active diver through a negligent schedule of service. Therefore, in the name of safety, I stand down my equipment and ensure that everything is in perfect working order to start the New Year! All of those pieces of equipment rest on an Excel document on my computer. This makes me certain that all of my equipment is serviceable at the beginning of every new year.
Regardless of your activity, it is a great idea to implement some form of a checklist. I know that if I had used a checklist on that day so long ago, I wouldn't have even made it to the point of donning my gear. Because I would have had a checklist that told me to check that SPG and ensure its functionality! I would have noticed that the tank itself may have been used; calling it into question as opposed to making its way back into the ocean! Today, as a much more experienced diver, I utilize checklists that range from setting up my rebreather to preparing for a trip. I can't count the number of times that the checklist has reminded me to do something that was needed.
An equally effective safe diver habit is the use of acronyms. In the Open Water program for PADI, we find a great one. It's called B.W.R.A.F. This is a simplified method of conducting a pre-dive safety check. Broken down, B.W.R.A.F. stands for BCD, Weights, Releases, Air and Final OK (some say Fins). This is conducted right before entering the water. You face your buddy and then you check for the functionality of your BCD, you make sure you and your buddy know where the weights are located, where the releases are located and that the air is on. The final ok is there to make sure everyone is good with the dive plan. This is a safety procedure that takes seconds. They are also touch points that accomplish numerous tasks in a quick amount of time. Every dive training organization has their version of a pre-dive check. The key commonality is that each of them has touch points that are directly linked to the safety of the diver.
For example, if the BCD isn't functioning, it is an indicator that the diver has their air off or that the the BCD is not properly assembled at the point of the low pressure inflator hose. If the diver doesn't have weights on or if your buddy doesn't know where your weights are located, that can also be identified. Having both divers take a moment to observe the connections of each individual's BCD will reduce anxiety if removal of a BCD is required. Finally, one of the most important is air. This is an opportunity to observe the air in the SPG or computer. It is also a great time for divers to ensure that valves on the cylinders are fully open. Through these five steps, we find that a buddy team can quickly mitigate a series of risks that could pose hazardous when the diver enters the water.
Rote memorization and practice may turn these acronyms into safe diving habits. They can also be located on a checklist to help train the diver in the safe aspects of our diving environment.
Some examples below:
B.W.R.A.F. (BCD, Weights, Releases, Air, Final OK) - the pre-dive safety check
S.O.S.T.D. (Signal; Orient; Switch to regulator; Time; Descend) - the five point descent
S.T.A.R.S. (Signal, Time, Airway, Reach, Swim) - the five point ascent
R.B.H.A.B.E.T. (Responsiveness, Buoyancy, Help, Airway, Breathing, Equipment, Transport) - seven steps to an effective rescue
An acronym may seem foreign to someone who does not deal with them regularly. This is why practice with the buddy is important. Over time, the two divers will naturally conduct these acronyms without failure. They will also become part of the normal diving routine and may help keep the diver safe if an emergency arises while in the water. Regardless of your dive training organization, it becomes common sense to implement safe dive training practices.
There are many ways to be a safe diver and each dive team will develop what those practices look like as they mature inside their diving careers. The key to any good dive habit is practice, practice, practice! Whether you are an Open Water Scuba Diver or a Course Director with many years of experience, utilizing checklists and acronyms are a certain way to successfully conduct dives in a safe manner. In 1998, it may have come in handy investing a little more time in a pre-dive safety check or holding a checklist in my hand while getting ready for the dive. Therefore, it's a great idea to start instilling these habits early in your diving career so that one day they will become a normal procedure and guarantee you many years of safe and enjoyable diving throughout the world!
About the author:
D.J. Mansfield is a PADI Course Director who dives Southern California and has done so for 23 years. He is currently the Director of Operations for Beach Cities Scuba and is a committed ocean steward and trainer for divers all over the world.
Follow him on Instagram @djmansfield7or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.