Technical Ice Diving

The words “technical diving” are popping up all around the diving world these days. Sometimes I am not sure how they actually relate; does technical diving mean that we are just diving mixed gases, or does it mean that we are actually planning a technically responsible dive? No matter how you look at it, the words “technical diving” have a definite meaning when we discuss ice diving, and specifically as it pertains to public safety ice rescue/recovery.

Ice is responsible for several drowning deaths every year. Sadly, statistics show that ice divers add to those deaths. More often than not, we do not just lose one diver under the ice, but rather two or more in a single incident. However, working on and under the ice is not unlike any other water operation, except that it requires more planning, a greater number of properly trained support personnel, and a higher level of professional training.

Ice diving is high-end technical diving: it takes place in an overhead environment, with limited access and exit, difficult environmental conditions, and often restricted or confined spaces. Public safety divers have the potential of performing more ice dives and placing themselves at higher risk potential then any other diving group. Since public safety diver cannot pre-plan when or where their next ice dive will take place, they need to be better and more specifically trained in varying conditions for the job. So, training on good, solid, supportive ice is not the real world! Public safety divers must operate with the concept that no ice is safe ice. After all, we would not have been called to the frozen waters if someone had not already proven the ice was unsafe.

All of the aspects of ice diving must be practiced and prepared before commencing any ice rescue/recovery operation. Sport diver training does not fit the bill for public safety ice diving. Most sport ice diver training is designed for a single experience, for comfort, and, of course, for a pleasurable and enjoyable experience. While there is nothing wrong with guiding people through an ice diving adventure, doing so does not fit the need of public safety divers, who will be required to ice dive in a variety of conditions.

Many dive teams are far too used to allowing their divers to conduct free-swimming searches or jack-stand search operations, often with four or more divers down at a time and tether lines around wrists or attached to a portion of their dive gear. Well, this is not Kansas any more, Toto, and those techniques will not work here.

What are some of the considerations for public safety ice diving?

Is command ready to function in that environment? Does command understand how ice rescue differs from other water responses? Do they have the proper flotation/hypothermic protection? Has the team trained for this event?

Have we trained a support crew to understand the needs of surface and subsurface ice operations? Are the support personnel prepared with proper exposure equipment, and proper procedures for securing the site, as well for aiding divers both above and below the ice? Do they truly understand how the equipment works and all of the possible dangers? Frozen equipment, hypothermia, rescue personnel falling through the ice, an underwater diver emergency, lack of access, and loss of egress, are just a few of the problems they could face.

Have tenders been trained in how to control a diver in an overhead environment with single access/exit? Do they really know how to tend, with proper signals and procedures, in these conditions, and not just hold a line? Do they understand why we do not allow the primary diver more than a maximum of one hundred feet from the point of entry, or how much line to give to the back-up diver in case of a primary diver emergency or disconnect? Have tenders they practiced tending on their bellies, with their own tethers back to a shore crew because the ice cannot support standing personnel? Will they understand why we try to keep the divers’ bubbles out of the egress area?

As ice divers, we work on the concept that if the primary diver requires assistance, the back-up will submerge and respond. (This procedure in itself requires redundant training between divers and tenders.) So, think about how long it takes for a diver to swim 100 feet (without becoming exhausted) just to be capable of reaching another diver. Compound this procedure with the concept that if the primary diver has become disconnected, the back-up diver will respond by swimming an additional twenty feet beyond the last known location of the primary diver and begin a slow, 360-degree circle close to the surface. Assuming nothing goes wrong with the back-up diver, the plan is that the disconnected primary diver will rise, if possible, to the ice roof, in hopes of snagging or seeing the back-up’s safety line. Or, it is possible that the primary diver will be caught in the back-up diver’s safety line and be brought back to the point of entry in the loop made by the tether. A slow, sweeping motion of the back-up divers line is critical if either plan is to achieve its goal. Simply pulling a tether line through the water to locate a disconnected diver requires several practice sessions just to keep the line straight, and allow back-up divers to complete their mission without back-tracking on themselves, causing the rescue process can fall apart.

As for the distance the back-up diver will be swimming, try it without ice and see how long and how much effort it requires to swim up to one hundred and fifty feet straight out and then make a 360 degree swim and return the one hundred and fifty feet to point of entry. At the same time, bear in mind the total workload placed on the back-up diver, considering that we do not want the regulator freezing up with heavy breathing and shallow water, nor do we want the diver to be unable to perform rescue work or even personal survival when and if he does arrive at the primary diver. Like most plans, this all sounds great on paper or hypothetically. But, this is the real world, and if you do not train for the worst scenario, you most likely will not be able to make it work when you need it.

Ice can create the most difficult water rescue/recovery of your life. Have you and your team trained for the real world of Technical Ice Rescue?

Are your dive safety lines marked every five feet so you will record a diver’s last known location was in case of emergency? All too often, we discover that support personnel are simply team members that have been handed a safety line and asked to help. Other than a great attitude, they may not have realistic training or realization of the job at hand.

Do they understand that allowing the primary diver more than limited access between shore and dive operations could have a two-fold effect? First, in shallow water, divers can become entrapped between the ice and the bottom. Second, divers’ bubbles will erode the ice under the exit route, and possibly destroy the planned egress.

Does the surface crew understand how to properly use flotation platforms, such as boats or ice ramps, or how to control their divers when forced into a prone position in order to tend from weak ice? The ice often will not support direct weight; the tenders and back-up/support divers may have to be in a prone position to displace their weight in order to become operational.

Have they trained in how to deploy back-up and support personnel when standard access is not possible? Think about it when the ice is not safe to stand on which is normal, how do you tend, how do you control the environment, practice, practice, practice, but with correct techniques. Again, are they exposure capable?

Have the divers been trained in an overhead environment? Are they wearing and have they practiced using pony bottles or another true alternate air source, and not an octopus designed for sport diving? An octopus does not help much in an all-too-common regulator freeze-up, free flow situation, or an underwater out-of-air emergency, especially when the diver cannot go directly back to the surface. One minute of attempting to control a second-stage free-flow under the ice could make your mouth so cold that the tip of your tongue could freeze and you cannot hold your mouthpiece in place. Have you trained for emergencies?

Are your divers wearing harnesses properly designed for technical overhead environment diving, securely fastened with proper attachments? Keep in mind, an accidental diver disconnect is your worst horror! Do you really want to just tie a line to your diver?

Are your diving supervisors and divemasters trained in this cold, overhead environment, or are they simply trying to wing it and adapt techniques used for warm water? Have they been through an actual divemaster ice diving program, or have they practiced controlling an ice diving situation during the summer months just to make sure that the team is still functional?

Public safety ice diving may be the most technical diving you or your team may ever do. Learning how to do it right may save the lives of you and your teammates.

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