Diver rescue

This article is about rescue of underwater divers. For rescue of non-divers by emergency service divers, see Public safety diving.
Beaching a casualty while providing artificial respiration

Diver rescue, following an accident, is the process of avoiding or limiting further exposure to diving hazards and bringing a diver to a place of safety.[1] A safe place is often a place where the diver cannot drown, such as a boat or dry land, where first aid can be administered and from which professional medical treatment can be sought. In the context of surface supplied diving, the place of safety for a diver with a decompression obligation is often the diving bell.

Following rescue, it may be necessary to evacuate the casualty to a place where further treatment is possible.

Reasons for needing rescue

There are many reasons why a diver may need rescue. These generally imply that the diver is no longer capable of managing the situation. Scenarios requiring rescue include:

The diver may get into a situation requiring rescue through incompetence, unfitness or bad luck.

Rescuers and training

In recreational diving, the urgency of the rescue and the remoteness of dive sites mean that professional rescuers rarely take part in diver rescues. Other divers at the scene become rescuers.

As the immediate in-water rescuer is often the diver's own buddy, diver training agencies often teach rescue techniques in intermediate-level diver training courses; examples are the PADI Rescue Diver, the BSAC Sport Diver and the DIR Rebreather Rescue courses.

When the rescue involves a group of people, co-ordination is needed to make it quick and effective. This may be carried out by the skipper of the boat, if diving is taking place from a boat, or by a diver. Some training agencies offer courses to prepare divers for such as role, for example BSAC's Practical Rescue Management course.

Professional divers are usually trained in diver rescue for the mode of diving they are certified in as part of the work of a professional diver is as stand-by diver to the working diver. The level and quality of training and required skill for certification may vary depending on the jurisdiction and relevant code of practice. During professional diving operations there will usually be a competent diver on stand-by at the surface control point, or in the water with the working diver, or both. The surface stand-by diver should be ready for immediate deployment for a rescue if this is deemed necessary by the diving supervisor. Appropriate equipment based on the operational hazards and risk should be available on site.

The bellman is the in-water standby diver in wet and dry bell operations.

Rescue activities

The effort and difficulty of a rescue varies widely and depends on many factors such as the nature of the problem, the underwater conditions and the type and depth of the dive site. A simple rescue could be to tow to safety a diver on the surface who is exhausted or suffering from leg cramps. A complex and high-risk rescue would be to locate, free and bring to the surface a lost diver who is trapped underwater in an enclosed space such as a shipwreck or cave with limited breathing gas supplies.

The sequence of potential activities needed in a generic rescue are:

Recognition of an emergency

Before any attempt to perform a rescue can be made, a person or group of people who are in a position to initiate appropriate procedures must be aware of the need. This may seem an obvious requirement, but many diving fatalities occur without anyone knowing that there is a problem, and in many others the problem is initially the loss of information regarding the current status of the diver. This is common in scuba accidents, where separation of the diving team members is often the first indication of a potential problem, and many emergencies are first recognised when a diver fails to surface at the expected time.

Scuba divers generally have no voice communication and are generally restricted to visual signalling. this is limited by line of sight and visibility, which may be poor. In some cases scuba divers may be connected by a tether, or buddy line, which allows communication by line signals, and professional scuba divers often tow a surface marker buoy, which may be used to transmit a very limited range of signals to surface personnel, mainly location of the diver, and if the diver needs help.

Surface supplied divers are less likely to get lost, as they are initially connected to the surface team by at least an airline, and usually also a lifeline which may be used by the line-attendant to communicate with the diver using line signals. Most 21st century surface supplied divers also have voice communication with the surface team, and this allows constant monitoring of the diver's condition by listening to the breathing sounds. Surface supplied divers are therefore able to indicate distress and need for assistance promptly and effectively in almost all cases, and the simple failure to respond appropriately to communications from the surface is also an effective indication of a problem.

Locating the casualty underwater

It may be difficult to locate the diver underwater where dives take place in low visibility conditions, in currents or in enclosed spaces such as caves and shipwrecks or where the diver uses breathing equipment which releases few bubbles, such as a rebreather. Even when open circuit equipment is used it may be difficult to see the bubbles due to surface conditions of wind, waves and spray, fog, or darkness.

Divers often use guidelines, surface marker buoys, diving shots, lightsticks and strobe lights to indicate their position to their surface support team.[3][4] A standard precaution when entering enclosed spaces is to use a guideline; this marks the exit route, which may be needed after the diver's fins, wash, and bubbles dislodge silt and loose overhead materials such as rust which can reduce visibility to near zero.

Common search techniques such as the circular search or jackstay search, need preparation and practice if they are to be used effectively and safely. The spiral box search and compass grid search require less preparation, but probably greater skill, and may be rendered ineffective by currents.

Searches of enclosed spaces expose the rescuer to danger. The rescuers may need training and experience in cave diving, ice diving or wreck diving to minimise the risks of that type of rescue.

Providing emergency gas

Providing emergency gas to a diver who has run out is the highest priority after finding the diver. Without breathing gas the diver will die in minutes. Running out of gas is a major contributor to diving accidents. Many scuba accidents start in some other way and culminate in running out of gas.

The main reasons for running out of gas are:

Even when the prime cause of an underwater emergency is not running out of gas, lack of gas can easily become another problem for the rescuers to overcome because more gas is consumed during the accident and its aftermath. This could be due to the diver remaining at depth for longer than planned or due to increases in the diver's breathing rate, due to exertion, stress or panic.

Common configurations of diving cylinders and diving regulators used as a backup or reserve for emergencies include:

See the diving cylinder and diving regulator articles for more details of the configurations.

There are two main ways of delivering breathing gas to the out-of-air diver;

The gas capacity of the cylinder is important. Divers breathing at depth consume more gas because the gas must be delivered to them at ambient pressure, and volumetric breathing gas consumption is driven by partial pressure of CO2. At the end of a deep dive they will need more gas to breathe during the longer ascent to the surface and during any decompression stops.

The mixture of the breathing gas is important. Hyperoxic gases cannot be breathed safely below their maximum operating depth because of the risk of oxygen toxicity and hypoxic gas cannot be breathed safely in shallow water because the partial pressure of oxygen falls below that needed to sustain consciousness.

Freeing the trapped casualty

Divers may become trapped in fishing nets; monofilament is almost invisible underwater. Loose ropes and lines are also an entanglement hazard; normal diving equipment has many inaccessible snag points that can trap the diver, particularly when components are left to dangle, and when clips are used which can hook onto line without active intervention by the diver (known to technical divers as suicide clips).

Another entrapment risk occurs when divers try to squeeze through small gaps where they or their equipment can become wedged or caught.

Old ferrous shipwrecks can be structurally unstable; they may retain their shape but have lost their strength through corrosion and therefore have components or cargos that have high potential energy due to gravity, and may collapse without warning.

Divers routinely carry a knife, line cutter, scissors or shears to free themselves from ropes, lines and nets. Lifting bags can be used to help move heavy objects underwater, but are not carried as standard equipment by most divers.

Bringing the casualty to the surface

If a diver is out of gas and is breathing gas supplied by the rescuer, the rescuer and casualty must remain close to one another and ascend together. Starting the ascent may be complicated by the casualty's lack of gas to inflate the buoyancy compensator to become buoyant at the start of the ascent and later, at the surface. At the start of the ascent the casualty may need to fin upwards and keep pace with the rescuer until, with the drop in ambient pressure, the gas already inside buoyancy devices such as the buoyancy compensator or diving suit, expands and provides sufficient buoyancy.

If the casualty is not capable of making an ascent, due to injury or unconsciousness, or the casualty cannot make a safe and controlled ascent, perhaps due to the loss or damage of the diving mask, the rescuer must control the casualty's ascent. This may be done by using the Controlled buoyant lift. As the casualty is totally dependent on the rescuer, it is important if the two were to separate underwater the casualty should continue to ascend to the surface in a failsafe way.

The options, in order of desirability, for making the casualty buoyant include:

If the casualty is not breathing, an urgent ascent directly to the surface is needed so that resuscitation can take place there.[2] In this situation and if the rescuer needs to do decompression stops, the rescuer has a dilemma; take the casualty to the surface and increase the risk or severity of decompression sickness, including irreversible injuries or death, or do the stops and risk leaving the casualty to die by asphyxiation or drowning. In these circumstances the value of a surface backup team becomes obvious, as a message or pre-arranged signal to the surface can bring a standby diver down to take over the recovery of the casualty while the initial rescuer attends to his own safety, or the rescuer can send the casualty to the surface by buoyancy, while remaining at the required depth for decompression. If the rescuer chooses to stop for required decompression, the non-breathing casualty may be made positively buoyant and allowed to surface, where there is at least a possibility of assistance from bystanders or surface team members.[2] This strategy has been successfully used in at least one incident.[2]

Active management of the casualty's airway during the ascent is necessary only as far as avoiding or correcting any position that tends to close the airway, such as extreme flexion of the neck.[2] Expanding gases will generally pass passively out of the airway during rescue from depth, and pulmonary barotrauma is rare. A gradual and natural outflow of expanding air during the ascent may help prevent aspiration of water into the lungs. There is no evidence that compressing the chest to promote exhalation is more effective than simply maintaining an open airway.[2]

Managing a convulsing casualty

Convulsions due to acute oxygen toxicity may render a diver unconscious. A common symptom is convulsions similar in appearance to epileptic seizure.[5]

The US Navy Diving Manual Revision 6 Volume 4 section recommends the following procedure for managing a convulsing casualty at depth. This differs significantly in some details from the procedure recommended by Dr E.D. Thalmann on the DAN website.[5]

Thalmann further comments that the decision whether to ascend with a diver who is convulsing is tricky,[5] and cites the US Navy Diving Manual again, specifically:

Thalmann further comments[5] that a full face mask is desirable for use with high oxygen mixes, as it allows the diver to be kept at depth until the convulsion subsides, and that a diver who loses the mouthpiece must be surfaced as he will try to take a breath when the convulsion stops, and on open circuit, that as long as the diver has the mouthpiece in place and is breathing, it should be left until you can get him out of the water, but should be removed on the surface if rescue breathing is necessary and possible. Furthermore, the main goal while the diver is in the water is to prevent drowning and secondarily ensure that the airway is open after the convulsion stops by keeping the neck extended.

Making the casualty buoyant on the surface

Once the casualty has been brought to the relative safety of the surface, it is important that the casualty does not accidentally sink again. The usual methods of making the diver positively buoyant are to:

Divers who are out of air will probably not be able to inflate their buoyancy compensator or drysuit using the normal and simple technique of pressing the direct feed injection valve. If their equipment allows it, and this is anlmost always the case, they may be able to inflate these devices orally or use an integrated gas cylinder (if fitted).

Attracting help

At this stage in the rescue immediate help is desirable. An immediate call or signal for help may take very little time to get the attention of potential assistance. However, if this fails, the survival of the casualty should be attended to, by artificial ventilation if necessary.

Very often, the only people that can provide that help are nearby boat users and people on the shore. Unless the emergency services are very close by or the rescue is beyond the capability of the local rescuers, they will not be on the scene quick enough to be able to provide help. Often with a small group of rescuers the emergency services can only be contacted after the highest priority job of getting the casualty is out of the water has taken place.

Often the rescue can be quickened if a boat can come to the casualty rather than a rescuer having to tow the casualty to safety. Once at the surface, using many rescuers becomes feasible; they can communicate and co-operate to make the rescue more efficient.

Methods of attracting help include shouting, waving a straight arm, flag or surface marker buoy, blowing a whistle, flashing or swinging a torch/flashlight at night, or using a strobe at night.[3] Cylinder powered, high-pressure gas whistles may be effective even over the sound of engines.[3]

Carrying out artificial ventilation in the water

If the casualty is not breathing, it is possible to sustain respiration or even restart it by artificial ventilation (AV) at the surface of the water.[2]

It may be diffucult for the rescuer to assess breathing, but it is more likely that this would fail to indicate shallow breathing than a false positive, and as there is little risk of harm from an attempt to administer rescue breathing when it is not needed, there is no reason to not administer AV if there is any suspicion that the casualty in not breathing.[2]

Methods of in-water AV vary depending on diver training organization:

The BSAC technique works like this:

It is not possible to provide effective cardiac compression in the water, and it is also unlikely to reliably identify cardiac arrest in the water.

Towing the casualty

If the casualty is incapacitated or exhausted, help is needed to move the casualty to safety. Towing is time consuming and will exhaust the rescuer, especially in rough water, currents, or if the rescuer is wearing high-drag equipment such as a drysuit or carrying bulky equipment.

It may be possible to avoid a tow by using a boat to pick up the casualty and rescuer. Alternatively, ropes thrown to the rescuer can be used to pull the pair towards safety.

Removing the casualty from the water

Urgently lifting an injured or incapacitated casualty from the water is a significant problem especially where there are few rescuers, the sea is rough, the boat has high sides or the rescuers on the shore cannot get in or close to the water to help.

Ropes and webbing can be very useful, but some precautions are need:

"Purbuckling" (or parbuckling) can be used to lift a casualty from the water up a vertical surface such as a high sided boat, pontoon or a jetty. For a 1.5 metre lift, a length of rope of at least 4 metres / 13 feet is needed. The casualty is brought horizontally alongside. A rescuer in the water with the casualty takes the loop of rope under the casualty and passes it back to two rescuers at the top of the vertical face. The loop of rope is positioned so that in passes outside the arms between the shoulder and elbow and around the outside of the legs between the knee and the hip. The two rescuers on land secure the end of the loop that they control by standing heavily on it with one foot. They both pull on the central part of the loop rolling the casualty up the surface taking care to co-ordinate the tension so that the casualty remains horizontal and that the rope remains in position on the casualty's arms and thighs. A rescuer should take care that the casualty's head and neck are not injured during the lift.

An alternative method of lifting the casualty using a rope is to pass the rope under an arm, around the back and under the other arm. The casualty is lifted vertically. There is a risk of spine damage by bending if the casualty is positioned with his or her back to the vertical surface and the rescuers pull the casualty's shoulders in board before lifting the lower end of the torso over top of the vertical surface.

Commercial divers generally wear a safety harness with lifting points, which simplifies the attachment of equipment for lifting the casualty, and if they are using a lifeline or umbilical, it would be strong enough to lift the diver out of the water.

Recreational and technical diver harnesses are generally unsuited and unsafe for lifting a casualty.

A proper spine board or rescue stretcher is far more suitable, but not often available.

Providing first aid

If the casualty is not breathing artificial respiration must be provided continuously. It is more likely to succeed if it is started promptly. If the casualty is showing no signs of circulation, chest compression is needed. See main article: cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

If the casualty has injuries the rescuers will need to provide first aid and prepare the casualty to be transported to professional medical help. See main article: first aid.

In the developed world, transporting a diving casualty to hospital or a recompression chamber may be as simple as contacting the marine emergency services, generally by using marine VHF radio, telephone or a distress signal, and arranging a lifeboat or helicopter. If a diving injury such as decompression sickness is suspected, the success of recompression therapy as well as a decrease in the number of recompression treatments required has been shown if first aid oxygen is given within four hours after surfacing.[6] In other parts of the world and particularly in remote locations, it may be difficult to quickly arrange reliable emergency medical transport and treatment; good insurance and self-reliance are needed.[7] In-water recompression is a high-risk alternative that may be useful in locations where the casualty would not survive the journey to the nearest recompression chamber due to its distance.[8][9]

Precautions during the rescue

Rescuers should not take unacceptable risks; any rescuers who become casualties themselves may jeopardise the rescue of the original casualty particularly as many of the emergency resources available at dive site, such as rescue manpower, first aid oxygen, underwater time and gas are generally in short supply.

Conscious casualties may panic and put the rescuer's safety at risk particularly when the rescuer approaches a casualty in or under the water. It may be possible to avoid contacting a panicked casualty by throwing a rope or buoyancy aid and encouraging the casualty to help him or herself. If contact must be made, the rescuer should try to approach the casualty from a direction that presents least risk to the rescuer, such as from behind. Alternatively, the rescuer may need to wait until the casualty is incapacitated before approaching.

See also


  1. British Sub-Aqua Club (1987). Safety and Rescue for Divers. London: Stanley Paul. ISBN 0-09-171520-2.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Mitchell, Simon J; Bennett, Michael H; Bird, Nick; Doolette, David J; Hobbs, Gene W; Kay, Edward; Moon, Richard E; Neuman, Tom S; Vann, Richard D; Walker, Richard; Wyatt, HA (2012). "Recommendations for rescue of a submerged unresponsive compressed-gas diver". Undersea & Hyperbaric Medicine : Journal of the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society, Inc. 39 (6): 1099–108. PMID 23342767. Retrieved 2013-03-03.
  3. 1 2 3 Davies, D (1998). "Diver location devices". Journal of the South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society. 28 (3). Retrieved 2009-04-02.
  4. Wallbank, Alister (2001). "Can anybody see me? (modified reprint from DIVER 2000; 45 (2) February: 72-74)". Journal of the South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society. 31 (2): 116–119. Retrieved 2009-04-02.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 OXTOX: If You Dive Nitrox You Should Know About OXTOX. DAN Diving Medicine Articles http://www.diversalertnetwork.org/medical/articles/article.asp?articleid=35
  6. Longphre, John M.; Petar J. DeNoble; Richard E. Moon; Richard D. Vann; John J. Freiberger (2007). "First aid normobaric oxygen for the treatment of recreational diving injuries.". Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine. 34 (1): 43–49. ISSN 1066-2936. OCLC 26915585. PMID 17393938. Retrieved 2009-04-02.
  7. Mitchell Simon J, Doolette David J, Wachholz Chris J, Vann Richard D (eds.) (2005). Management of Mild or Marginal Decompression Illness in Remote Locations Workshop Proceedings. United States: Divers Alert Network. p. 108. Retrieved 2009-04-02.
  8. Kay, Ed; M. P. Spencer. (1999). In water recompression. 48th Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society Workshop. UHMS Publication Number RC103.C3. United States: Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society. p. 108. Retrieved 2009-04-02.
  9. Pyle, Richard L.; David A. Youngblood. (1995). "In-water Recompression as an emergency field treatment of decompression illness". AquaCorp. 11. Retrieved 2009-04-02.
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