Why wearing a harness is important for safety and search effectiveness

  • Sometimes we take for granted that the value of a harness is obvious. We stop taking it for granted when we meet teams that either never thought of the concept or who are resistant to it. In either case, education needs to take place.
  • As low visibility searches almost always require tender-directed, tethered, solo diving for safety, accuracy, repeatable patterns, and effectiveness a harness becomes an important issue.
  • Why not hold a loop in the line?
  1. If you get into trouble such as entrapment or entanglement and drop the line, how will your back-up diver find you? How would you like to be out-of-air and entangled on the bottom, with no direct link to help? If you think dropping down on a diver’s bubbles in low visibility or moving water is a reality in an emergency, you haven’t tried it. And what happens if breathing stops or the diver is in an overhead environment?
  2. A hand loop leaves you only one hand to help yourself with when you experience a problem. How do you find, hold, and cut an entanglement with one hand? How are you going to put your full face mask back on your face if it blows off, with only one hand free? Remember, your tether line should always be kept taut to prevent entanglement and to maintain line-pull signal communication. As the tender takes up slack when you give it because you are trying to free up your hand holding the loop, you are stuck with one hand outstretched.
  3. A hand loop, or holding onto a tethered line, leaves only one hand free for searching, so your search capability is cut in half and will take twice as long with twice the effort.
  4. How can you handle evidence or a body with only one hand?
  5. Unless you maintain your hand in the exact same place throughout each sweep and when you make a turn and need to switch hands, your search pattern will continually be ruined.
  6. Held hand loops typically result in a slacker line than a harness-tethered line. In order to maintain a line taut enough for both the diver and tender to feel and recognize a tether line snag or entanglement in less than two seconds, the diver must swim against the line slightly away from the tender. Hand-loop holding divers must either maintain their arm continually outstretched or bent with their hand holding the loop against their chest to maintain an accurate pattern. In either case, swimming a taut line will result in hand and arm fatigue, and in cold water could easily result in a lost line.
  • Why not tie a tether line around your waist?
  1. A low tether point causes many problems. See below under “girth webbing and tether points should sit across the solar plexus.
  2. If you have to be pulled to the surface and out of the water would you like it to be by a rope around your waist?
  3. What is there to keep the rope from twisting around, putting the tether point behind you or mid center where it allows the line to go between your legs, and where it makes the pattern less accurate.
  4. To keep a taut line you will have to maintain constant pressure on your kidneys, and other abdominal organs, including the diaphragm.
  5. What will a line around your waist do to your ability to drop you weight belt?
  • A properly worn water harness allows the wearer to easily feel a line signal with 3/8” line for up to 150 feet.
  • A harness allows you to use both hands for searching, or alternate hands between protecting your head and searching. It allows you two hands continuously for  working, carrying search objects and tools, and managing problems such as entanglements, low-on-air situations and dislodged masks.
  • A harness allows your back-up diver to find you even if you become unconscious and lose breathing.
  • A properly worn harness allows you to swim against the line to maintain a taut line without any discomfort or effort.
  • The change of the angle of the tether line attached to the fixed harness tether point tells the wearer that the tether line is snagged and helps indicate the rate of ascent when gauges cannot be easily read.
  • We are sometimes asked, “what if I want to break free from my harness. I don’t want to wear a harness because I don’t want to be trapped by one.”
  1. The first question to ask is when would you ever want to break free from your harness outside of moving water operations when a special quick release tether should be used?
  2. If you need to surface for whatever reason, simply surface. The harness will not prevent you from doing that.
  3. If you are entangled on the bottom, that is the last time you would ever want to loose the direct, physical connection to your back-up diver.
  4. If your tether line is entangled, the back-up diver will clear it for you and then make sure you and your gear are clear as well. If the tether line is too entangled or entrapped to clear (which really only happens with poor diving and tending procedures), then the back-up diver will clip the contingency line into your harness tether point, cut your line and take you to the surface. If you decide to cut the tether line yourself, then what happens when you lift off five feet from the bottom and realize you or your gear were also entangled. Now how will your back-up diver find you to help you? What happens if you become low or out-of-air now?
  • Read through the fatality and injury section in the appendix. Look at how being properly tethered with a harness and line for a back-up diver to follow down, could have helped save the lives of many of those divers.

Why a hand loop or holding onto the line while wearing a harness is not a good idea.

  • Some harness wearing divers are taut to make a hand loop in the line to maintain one hand on the line. Others simply fall into the bad habit of holding onto the line itself.
  1. Why are they holding onto the line? The answer is for a feeling of security, to know where the line is all the time. First, if they were wearing a proper harness and were swimming slightly away from the tender, then they would always feel the tether line running along their side. These divers are most likely swimming perpendicular to the line, meaning, the line doesn’t directly touch their body so they do not feel it. Hence the need to keep a hand on it for a sense of where they are and where the line is.
  2. They probably use a signal system that only gives a “change direction” signal rather than a true “go left” or “go right” signal. The “change direction” signal results in a loss of orientation that the unconscious mind strives for. The diver holds on to the line to help the brain know – “okay my left hand is on the line so I am going this way, home is that way, okay now my right hand is on the line so I am going this way, and now home is in that direction.”
  3. If line holding becomes a habit of security, whether conscious or not, then where do you think a stressed or panicked diver’s hand will go. That leaves the diver only one hand for self-rescue and problem solving.

What features to look for in a water harness

  • The girth webbing and tether point should sit across the solar plexus.
  1. A lower tether point, such as found on rappelling harnesses, force the wearer in to a vertical position. A solar plexus height tether point puts the wearer in the correct horizontal swim position necessary for diving and surface operations. In moving water, a low tether point could even force wearers onto their backs with water running over their face and airways.
  2. A lower tether point is more likely to place the tether line between the w arer’s legs.
  3. A girth positioned below the solar plexus can restrict diaphragm movement and therefore breathing.
  4. A low girth strap can cause discomfort during line signal reception because the girth will jerk against the wearer’s sides and kidney areas. A properly positioned girth sits around the rib cage that protects internal organs.
  • Therefore, harnesses require shoulder height adjustment capability to make sure the girth strap sits across the wearer’s solar plexus, regardless of the exposure suit.
  • The girth strap should fit snuggly for proper line-signal reception and fit, yet it should not restrict deep breathing. Therefore, the girth strap needs to be adjustable for different wearer sizes and different exposure suits on an individual wearer.
  1. The wearer places one hand on the solar plexus and takes a large inhalation as the tender closes and snugs the girth strap over the wearer’s hand.
  2. girth strap closure should be secure enough to pick up the wearer holding another person without the strap opening.
  • Webbing should be stiff enough not to roll on itself and bind up to become rope-like.
  1. If webbing binds up it can lay between ribs and push in between them causing discomfort when tension is applied to the harness.
  • The tether point should be slightly off-center to help prevent the tether line from ending up between the wearer’s legs if the wearer turns away to far from the tender..
  • A back-D ring tether point is helpful for allowing the harness to be used in the two-tether point rigging for surface ice and other surface operations.
  • Explain why rappelling harnesses are not good because of the low tether point. Explain that leg straps are only necessary if divers are rappelled off bridges or other platforms into the water. Leg straps are restrictive and add significant cost to the harness.
  • diver raises arms over head or puts behind back
  • tender slips harness over diver’s arms and shoulders
  • diver places hand over solar plexus and takes a large inhalation
  • tender closes the harness snugly over the hand and full inhalation
  • the harness girth should come across the solar plexus to protect the abdominal areas not protected by ribs, and to put the diver in a horizontal swim position
  • make sure carabiner is on correct tether point
  • make sure the girth closure is through the double D-rings properly

How should tenders attach the tether line to the  harness

  • Attach line with locking carabiner. For very cold weather or overhead environments place a piece of duct tape over the lock with one end of the tape folded over itself for easy removal. This will keep the lock from freezing shut, will prevent the line from abraiding on the lock, and will prevent accidental opening of the carabiner and tether disconnection.

All of these features are part of the Lifeguard Systems water operation harness.

Features to look for in a water operation harness for diving and surface ice rescue:

  1. Rapid girth-size adjustment capability for proper girth sizing, between individuals and for different exposure suits.
  2. Shoulder strap adjustment capability for proper height adjustments – tether point should be at solar plexus height.
  3. X-back design, not a Y-back design, to avoid any pressure on back of neck.
  4. A stainless D-ring tether-point built into the harness that is separate from the girth- closure system.
  5. A secure girth-closure system – the Lifeguard Systems harness uses double D-rings plus a Velcro back-up system.
  6. Parachute nylon stitching for strength and durability.
  7. A stiff material webbing to prevent the webbing from twisting, binding up, and working it’s way in-between the wearer’s ribs.
  8. A back D-ring tether point option for double-tether point systems for surface operations and for tethering a tender on a steep embankment.
  9. Color-coded sizing for easy and quick donning of the right harness
  10. Two tether points for attaching tools

Small: Red            Medium: Blue      Large: Black         XL: Green             XXL: Tan

Call to learn more about how to size personnel for a harness.

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