Rescue Diver: It’s a beautiful day to save lives

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One step closer to being an underwater NINJA!

I loved my Advanced Open Water course. So much so that during our final briefing I started asking questions because I didn’t want to stop. Turned out that my instructor Maya was starting a Rescue Diver course the next day, as was my buddy Nico, and she encouraged me to take it. There are many practical reasons to take Rescue; you can never have too many rescue divers in the water. Basic first aid, diving-specific rescue techniques, simple tactics to recognize and prevent problems, self protection, and skills to lead or ably assist in an emergency. Plus, everyone who takes it raves about how much fun the course is. I signed right up.

Rescue day -1 & 0: Emergency First Responder
Before you can start the Rescue course, you must fulfill the prerequisite of Emergency First Responder training. I began the two-day EFR crash course with our five-person Rescue crew: we were a serious bunch with a doctor, a nurse, two DMTs, and me. Everyone else had some prior first aid training, but we went over the basics, including lots of catch phrases: Stop think act! Activate EMS! Hello, my name is Erin, I’m an Emergency Responder, may I help you? We practiced CPR, and I treated for shock by tucking people in under a blanket, offering cake, and saying “there-there” lots. Shock treatment is kind of my bag. With basic skills under our belts, we moved into the water.

Rescue Day 1: confined water, off the UDC dock
Our Rescue course started in earnest as we were all getting kitted up on the UDC dock: about halfway dressed, all of a sudden multiple panicked divers were in the water calling for help. Even simulated, it is easy to freeze before you remember what to do. Two of the guys had their gear on already and jumped in with floats. I tossed a BCD and tank in, splitting my fingers open in the process, then hopped in to deliver it as makeshift flotation to one of the faux-drowning victims. Whew, just in time! SAVED. We missed a few points, were a little slow, but not bad for a first time out.

BCDs are the inflatable vest divers wear attached to their tank and are always plentifully on hand on a dive boat. It’s their purpose to float, so they make a great impromptu rescue buoy! Source: Google Images

Once we properly got into the water, our instructors Maya and Matt demonstrated some basic skills: techniques on how to approach and resolve a tired diver, unresponsive diver, and panicked diver both below water and at the surface. (They made them look so easy!) I learned how to fend off someone who wants to steal my air with my left arm while preparing my backup air source to give them. Simple, yet effective. Calm down, I got you. The tactics for approaching panicked divers at the surface are particularly interesting: give a strong push to spin them around or go underwater beneath them to reach their back, then mount their tank holding it in between your legs, and inflate their BCD to get them buoyant, which usually helps resolve the panic.

For unresponsive non-breathing divers at the surface, we practiced simultaneously giving rescue breaths, removing equipment, towing, and exiting the water on each other. I gave Nico more air than necessary by actually giving rescue breaths through the pocket mask and he hauled me out of the water in a dramatic Baywatch style; we had the whole dock laughing.

This day was intense. We learned so much in a short period of time. I had heard rumors things were only going to get more so when we moved to open water the next day. Bring it on.

Tool of the trade: pocket masks keep water out of the face of victims and easily attach to emergency oxygen pumps.
Source: Google Images

Rescue Day 2: open water, Black Coral Wall
We reached the dive site via boat and as we were putting on our gear, suddenly there were people thrashing in the water. Again. Rings were tossed overboard, rescue divers entered the water. I was partially in my wetsuit already, so grabbed my fins and a life jacket and jumped in. Only after my victim was under control did I hear the laughter from the boat and realize something was off: I still had my sunglasses on instead of a proper mask and snorkel. Whoops… Saving in style! It’s the way I roll.

After performing some skills on sandy bottom—buddy breathing, helping someone scared about their flooded mask—we buddied up, hero and victim-to-be, and went for a dive. I was paired with Devin, who played the part of an overconfident yet under-experienced diver. Apart from our rescue training, we saw a school of colorful reef squid, which are my favorite to watch as they flutter and hover. Every time I turned around, our instructor Matt was totally messing with Nico, at one time grabbing at his regulator while flipped completely upside down. Devin gave me a run for my money, getting himself into trouble and panicking often. At the surface, he freaked again, but I got him under control. “Erin, I almost died!!! You saved my life!” After all the exertion, I gave him a tired diver tow back to the boat. SAVED! Your mother can send me a thank you note.

Nico, ON IT!

The boys, Nico and Devin, looking buff during our surface interval.
Crashed out on the boat roof. Fake dying and fake saving people is hard work!

Rescue Day 3: open water, Pretty Bush
Chaos struck as soon as we arrived at the dive shop in the morning. Devin was ready to “dive dive dive!”, had beer in hand on the boat, and we had to “throw him off” the dive for drinking and diving. A medical “emergency” (ketsup was everywhere!) broke out on the dock and first aid had to be administered. During our predive evaluation we discovered that our boat was improperly stocked with safety gear and had to properly prep it.

Again each of us was paired up with an “inept” buddy with little experience: the buddy checks were a mess as each person had something wrong with them. I remembered my first dive after Open Water where I was buddied with a rescue diver; I realize now he was trained specifically to counteract/prevent mistakes I could have made and that he must have been on the lookout for all sorts of stuff to be wrong with me!

At the dive site, we started off again with victims in the water immediately. Our actions in response and timing were markedly improved from the day before. I went after a thrashing Elle, who rejected the float I offered her and attempted to climb on top of me. I fended her off repeatedly, managing finally to have the float be her only option and getting her to safety without me also drowning in the process.

Into the ocean we went for real and began the dive. After about 10 minutes we reached a sand patch and the “OW” buddies went apeshit. A group of ten, we were in close quarters, and we were treated to thrashing and panicking of every flavor. It was a clusterfuck.

Devin going a little mad, Jonathan coming in from behind to save the day.
Cramp removal in the background, and Alex on the watch.
Being ever vigilant in all directions, keeping an eye out for crazies.

My buddy Elle acted like a three-year-old, causing mischief by grabbing at gear, ascending when she shouldn’t, and playing unsafely. In the video below at about 0:10 you can see me trying to channel her energy into something silly yet not dangerous. The rest of the divers swim around us, in varying degrees of craziness. This was not a normal dive.

Even with all the rescuing, there was still a little bit of time for a little sight-seeing!

At the end of the dive, of course people were missing and we spread out to search. Unresponsive divers were found quickly underwater but not far from the boat and pulled to relative safety aboard the boat. SAVED!

Once back on the boat, ready to head home, all of our ears perked up when we heard a *splash*. For once, it was just people headed into the ocean to pee. But I think from now on each of us won’t hear a splash the same way again. It’s always worth a look to be sure.

At final roll call though, bad news: Maya was missing from the bow. We quickly located her in the water, but she was unresponsive. Jonathan and Alex got her safely into the boat and started her on emergency oxygen. The boys rotated simulated chest compressions in two minute intervals as I performed rescue breaths and gave reassurance in her ear the whole fifteen minutes back to shore. As we approached the dock, we hashed out our next steps to get her to emergency services. In Utila, there is no 911 equivalent; you just yell and then try to locate the doctor in one of the bars. We didn’t need to execute our plan, but man were we ready to!

In the aftermath of saving Maya, all the way back to UDC. Pocket mask and shades, that’s how I roll, biyotch!

I left the course feeling a strong sense of confidence, strength, and excitement. Even though I may not hit every single step perfectly, I am far better equipped to handle an emergency, help someone in need, and protect myself. I am a better diver and person. I am capable. I am a RESCUE DIVER!!

Since the conclusion of my Rescue course, I have been on multiple dive boats where other Rescue courses are being taught. I have to say, we got thrown a LOT more shit that these other courses, partly because we were a bigger group. Every time we started suiting up, someone was in trouble. These other groups don’t get nearly the amount of madness we did and they take a hell of a long time to respond. When you are in the middle of an “emergency”, it can feel like you’re not performing as well as you should, but turns out we were actually a pretty kick ass group. PADI-punch!

All photos courtesy of Arnaud.


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