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Learning from Others’ Mistakes: The Power of Context-Rich “Second” Stories

Proper storytelling is a key to learning from the mistakes of others. Human Factors consultant and educator Gareth Lock explains the power of context-rich stories to inform and help us to develop the non-technical skills needed to make better decisions, communicate more clearly, and lead/teach more effectively.

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by Gareth Lock
Header image courtesy of Gareth Lock
. Divers from Red Sea Explorers’ examining a magnificent gorgonian coral.

Diving can be a fun, sociable, and peaceful activity; it can be challenging and technically difficult; and it can be a way of escaping the hustle and bustle of modern life. Sometimes new wrecks are discovered, caves have new line laid in them, new encounters with wildlife are experienced, and in many cases, courses are completed where both instructors and students have learned something new. 

However, it can also be scary, harrowing and frightening if things don’t go to plan or if the plan was flawed in the first place. 

Fortunately, the majority of dives which take place are the former and we consider the outcomes to be positive. If we think about it, the goal for every dive should be to surface, having had an enjoyable time, with gas reserves intact and no-one feeling physically or emotionally injured. But how do we achieve this goal considering the inherent risks we face while diving? 

The easy answer would be to have effective training, to have the correct equipment, and to have and apply the right mindset. These three things together then lead to safe diving practices. You could say that the majority of safe diving practices and safely designed and configured equipment comes from feedback following accidents, incidents, and near misses. You only have to look at the work which the late, famed cave explorer Sheck Exley did in terms of cave diving fatalities and his “Blueprint for Survival” to see how procedures and equipment have evolved.

What do we learn?

There are accident and incident reports available to us. What do we learn from them? Bearing in mind that the majority of reports which divers see are either in social media or summarised in reports like the Divers Alert Network Annual Incident Report or the BS-AC Annual Incident Report.

For example, the following incident reports are written in a style similar to those you would find on social media or in an organization’s incident report.   

An inexperienced diver entered the water to provide support for a guided dive to 24m. They got separated from their buddy, made a rapid ascent to the surface after nearly running out of gas. They were recovered on the boat without any symptoms of DCS being present.

A diver on the final dive of a rebreather training course entered the water from a dive boat. The diver swam to the side of the boat to receive their bailout cylinder to clip on. While sorting their gear out alongside the boat, they appeared to go unconscious and descend below the surface. The diver was recovered from 38 m/124 ft and despite CPR and first aid being applied, they were pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital ER. On inspection, the oxygen cylinder on their rebreather was found to be turned off and the controller logs showed that the pO2 had dropped to 0.05 while they were on the surface.

How much learning do you get from these reports? What emotions did you feel while reading them? What did you think was the primary cause of each of these events? If you were to choose two or three words to describe the causes, what would they be? 

Human error? Complacency? Inexperience? Rushing? Not paying attention? Overconfidence? Naivety? Arrogance? Stupidity? Who was it? Where was the instructor? Were they certified? Which agency? Were they qualified?

All of these are normal responses, and they make up the first story.

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Photo courtesy of 123rf Image Library

The First Story

The first story is the narrative we hear, and we start to make immediate judgments on. We can’t help making judgments, even when we try not to. We make judgments because we compare the stories we’ve just read or heard to our own previous experiences. We match patterns to what we ‘know’ and then fill in the gaps with what we think happened, all the time thinking about whether it was the ‘right thing’ to do based on our own experiences.

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Photo by Gareth Lock.

This ‘filling in gaps’ is normal human behavior. Because our brains are constantly trying to make sense of the situation when we don’t have enough information about a scene or a situation, we reflect on what we’ve seen, read, and heard in the past and then make a best guess or closest fit. During this process, we will be subject to a number of biases, and one of the strongest at this stage is called confirmation bias. This is where we think we know the answer to the question, then as we read or hear something in the story that aligns with our reasoning, we stop looking any further because we have confirmed our suspicions.

In many cases, we carry on and don’t think anything of the learning opportunities presented because we know what happened, we know that ‘we wouldn’t do that’ because we would have spotted the issue before it became critical. We often make use of counterfactuals (could have, should have, and would have) to describe how the incident could have been prevented.



Unfortunately, this means that often we don’t learn. There is a difference between a lesson identified and a lesson learned—a lesson learned is where we make a conscious decision to accept how we do things based on the conditions and outcomes, or we actually put something in place which is different than what was there before and see how effective it is to resolve the problem encountered. 

If we are to make improvements, we need to look at the errors, mistakes, and deviations that were made. However, we must recognize that errors are outcomes, not causes of adverse events. If we want to stop an adverse event from occurring, we need to look closer at the conditions which led to the error occurring i.e., the error-producing conditions. 

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Extracted from INPO/DOE Human Performance Improvement Handbook Vol 1 – The Human Diver.

The easiest way to look for error-producing conditions in an event that has already happened is to get those involved to tell context-rich stories. This becomes the second story.

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Photo courtesy of 123rf Image Library.

The Second Story

Second stories look much deeper than what we first hear. They look at the context, the local rationality, the conditions, especially those conditions which might lead to errors. Ultimately, they expose the inherent weakness and gaps in any system, where the system includes people, paperwork, equipment, relationships, the environment and their interactions. 

Second stories also highlight how divers and instructors are constantly adapting and changing their behaviors/actions to deal with the dynamic nature of diving. They describe ‘normal work’. This adaptation could be moving dive sites, increasing or reducing the time for a course, the order in which skills are taught or the amount of gas used/planned for a dive. Second stories describe the difference between ‘Work as Imagined’, which is what is written down, what is expected to happen, and against which compliance is assessed, and ‘Work as Done’ which is what actually happens in the real world and takes into account the pressures, drivers, and constraints which are faced by those on the dive or the course.

The easiest way to see what a second story looks like is to tell it, and the following account is the same recreational event as above but told as a second story. 

An Advanced Open Water (AOW) diver with around 50 dives was acting as an ‘assistant’ to the instructor and dive-centre owner on a guided dive with five Open Water (OW) divers and recent graduates from the school they themselves had learned at. The AOW diver felt a social obligation to help the Open Water Scuba Instructor (OWSI) who was leading the dive, because the OWSI had done so much to help her conquer her fear of mask-clearing during her own training. However, she was also wary that, over time, her role had moved from being a diver on the trip to being almost the divemaster by helping other divers out, which she wasn’t trained to do. In addition, the instructor regularly asked her, at the last minute, to help out and change teams to ensure the ‘experience’ dives happened.

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Photo by Gareth Lock.

On this particular occasion, the AOW diver was buddied with a low-skilled OW diver who acted arrogantly and did not communicate well. In fact, she didn’t believe that three of the five on this trip should have received their OW certificates, given their poor in-water skills. As they approached the dive site, the visibility could be seen to be poor from the boat and the surface conditions weren’t great. The instructor said to the AOW diver, “Don’t lose the divers. I want you at the back shepherding them.”

They entered the water and descended to 24 m/78 ft and made their way in the poor visibility. On two occasions, the OW buddy had to be brought back down by the AOW diver as they ascended out of control. At one point, the OW diver turned around quickly and accidently knocked the AOW diver into the reef. Unfortunately, the AOW diver became entangled in some line there, and the OW diver swam off oblivious to the entanglement. When the five divers and instructor reached the shot-line ready to ascend, the instructor realized the AOW diver was missing. The instructor couldn’t trust the five divers to ascend on their own and didn’t have enough time to wait at the bottom and conduct a search, so the six ascended. On the surface, the buddied OW diver said that the AOW diver had swum off looking at fish in a certain area.

In the meantime, the AOW diver had managed to free herself; but in her panic, while stuck on the bottom, she breathed her gas down to almost zero and had to do a rapid ascent. She surfaced, feeling very scared and sick with panic, just as the instructor was speaking to the other six on the surface. On seeing the AOW diver break the surface, the instructor swam to her but turned and shouted at the other divers, admonishing them for abandoning their buddy on the bottom. The AOW diver felt very alone and wanted to give up diving as she was not given the opportunity to tell her side of the story.

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Photo by Gareth Lock.

Observations on potential contributory factors and error-producing conditions:

  • Deviation of standards on the part of the instructor/dive-center owner taking OW divers to 24 m/78 ft, maybe driven because of the need to generate revenue and offer something unique.
  • Authority gradient between the instructor and AOW diver meant that the AOW diver felt they couldn’t end the dive before they even got in the water or once in the water.
  • Inferred peer pressure to help out when they weren’t qualified or experienced enough to act in a supervisory role.
  • Poor technical skills on the part of the OW divers and the AOW limited their situation awareness to be aware of hazards and risks.
  • Limited awareness on the part of the instructor regarding the location of all the divers during the dive.
  • Positive note – good decision on the part of the instructor to ascend with the five OW divers in poor conditions and not keep them on the bottom or get them to ascend on their own.

A full account of the second event can be found here where you can also download a guide which contains more detail than the video covers and also gives you details on how to run a learning event at your dive center or in your own classes.

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We can see that the learning opportunities have increased in the second stories. They allow certain issues to be identified like time pressures, financial pressures, peer-pressure, authority gradient, teamwork, leadership, decision-making and situation awareness. These aspects are rarely captured or recounted in the narratives we see online or in incident reports. There are a number of reasons: 

  • They are often considered ‘common sense’, 
  • Our brains are constantly looking for simple answers to complicated or complex problems, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to find an individual or piece of equipment to ‘blame’ rather than look wider.
  • Those involved don’t consider these factors to be important so they don’t write them down.
  • Those involved don’t know about these error-producing conditions or human factors so they don’t know to include them.
  • There is no formalised and structured investigation process for diving incidents by diving organisations to facilitate the capture, analysis and sharing of second stories.

Telling second stories isn’t enough to create learning though. We have to work out how to change our own behaviors, and that is where the free materials and courses which The Human Diver provides come in. They help develop these non-technical skills in divers, instructors, instructor trainers, and dive center managers/owners to help them make better decisions, communicate more clearly and lead/teach more effectively. Ultimately, it is about having more fun on the dive, and ending each dive with the goal described at the start of this article intact and creating learning in the process.


Since 2011, Gareth has been on a mission to take the human factors and crew resource management lessons learned from his 25 year military aviation career and apply it to diving. In 2016, he formed The Human Diver with the goal to bring human factors, non-technical skills and a Just Culture to the diving industry via a number of different online and face-to-face programmes. Since then, he has trained more than 350 divers from across the globe in face-to-face programmes and nearly 1500 people are subscribed to his online micro-class. In March 2019, he published ‘Under Pressure: Diving Deeper with Human Factors’ which has sold more than 4000 copies and on 20 May 2020, the documentary ‘If Only…’ was released which tells the story of a tragic diving accident through the lens of human factors and a Just Culture. He has presented around the globe at dive shows and conferences to share his passion and knowledge. He has also acted as a subject matter expert on a number of military diving incidents and accidents focusing on the role of human factors.

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Hal Watts: Plan Your Dive

Known for his deep air diving exploits back in the day, 86-year-old Hal Watts, aka “Mr. Scuba,” is one of the pioneers of early scuba and credited with coining the motto, “Plan Your Dive. Dive Your Plan.” He founded the Professional Scuba Instructors Association International (PSAI) in 1962, which eventually embraced tech diving, but never relinquished its deep air “Narcosis Management” training. Italian explorer and instructor Andrea Murdock Alpini caught up with Watts and teased out a few stories from the training graybeard.

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Interview by Andrea Murdock Alpini 
English text by Vincenza Croce

Hal Watts, Terrence Tysall, and Bill Stone in March of 1993.  This was the last stop in the U.S. for a test dive of the Cis-Lunar Mk-4 rebreather prior to Stone’s San Agustin expedition (1994) for its first real sump dive.

“Plan your dive, dive your plan,” is a common refrain in diving, but it’s easy to forget the meaning of this phrase has changed over time.

The underwater explorers of the early days learned to plan their dives with watches, depth gauges, and US Navy tables. Back then, decompression tables were the Bible for divers—something miraculous, halfway between alchemy and physiology. Those trail-blazing divers defined what it meant to “plan” a dive.

But, at the time, the term “technical diving” did not exist; divers breathed air on the bottom as well as during decompression. Only after many years was oxygen added, followed by the famous jump into the hyperbaric chamber.  

Later came new innovations after a few decades of experiments: hyperoxygenated binary mixtures, the NOAA tables, Heli-air (i.e. the addition of helium in tanks loaded with air), the change in the speed of ascent, new molecules to be studied, new physiological and narcotic effects, and their consequent impacts on humans and their psyches.

In a very short time, diving traditions underwent a metamorphosis. The spool and the coral tank became a proper reel, the ascent bin and the plastic bag disappeared in favor of the buoyancy control device (BCD), the surface marker buoy appeared—and then, even later on, wrists were adorned with underwater computers instead of decompression slates.

Divers later renewed and revolutionized a niche discipline, transforming it into a sporting phenomenon and a vocation. Faced with imminent change, there is often nothing that can be done when an anomalous wave arrives; you cannot stop its irresistible force with the wave of a hand. And thus was the American revolution of underwater technique, where the means of exploration—read mixed gas and scooters—have become the end.

The self-proclaimed originator of the “plan your dive, dive your plan” motto was 86-year old Hal Watts, the founder of American didactic Professional Scuba Association International (PSAI) and a diving pioneer who once held the Guinness Book of World records for deep diving. Though the use of trimix grew in popularity, Hal continued to believe in deep air, in the ancient technique of coral fishermen. He supported wreck and cave diving—with decompressive mixtures and new configurations through PSAI; but, above all, he believed (and continues to believe) that deep air, if properly practiced, is a discipline with unique logistics, hidden dangers, and irresistible charms that can take you to a parallel world.

Hal Watts speaking at aquaCORPS tek.93 Conference

First of all, Hal, what was the dive that changed your way of seeing scuba diving? I mean, a dive that was like an epiphany, a dive which changed your point of view on a technical matter?

Hal Watts: Wow, you sure are really trying to test my old man memory. Now I’ll have to review some of my old logbook entries. 

The first scuba dive that really got my attention as to just how serious and dangerous scuba diving can be was on December 2, 1962. I was diving with Bob Brown, co-owner of Florida State Skindiving School in Orlando, Florida. I was a member of a dive club in Orlando known as Orlando Sport Diving Club. Bob and I had heard of a sinkhole in Ocala known locally as Zuber Sink as well as Blue Sink. Years later, I later leased the property and renamed it as Hal Watts’s 40 Fathom Grotto, and I eventually purchased the Grotto in mid-1979.

We had never talked to anyone about the sinkhole; therefore, we had no idea about the visibility or the depth. Up to this point, I had constructed my favorite BCD, using a large white Clorox plastic jug, which we tied to our twin tank system. We put air into the BCD from our “Safe Second Stage” mouthpieces. 

Bob and I tied our safety line to a tree on the bank of the sink and reviewed our dive plan. I am reminded of the motto I came up with, many moons ago—Plan your dive, dive your plan. 

We all know that motto. I didn’t realize that it was you who coined it.

It was back in the 1960s when I was writing course manuals for NASDS [National Association of Scuba Diving Schools] and opened up my Mr. Scuba dive shop.

Mr. Scuba’s Magic Bus!

But back to the dive at Zuber. I’ve failed to mention the fact that neither of us had been doing any dives below 30 m/100 ft. We followed the cave line down slowly, not paying enough attention to our depth. Before we realized it, we had hit the bottom, stirred it up, and had no clear water.

Lucky for us, I kept the cave diving reel in my hand, and Bob kept his hand on the line. I couldn’t see; however, I could feel Bob’s hand, squeeze his fingers tight on the line, grab his thumb, and give it the “thumbs up” signal. I don’t know how we managed it, but we were both able to use our NASDS safe second stages and add air into the Clorox “BCDs.” We were actually fated to begin an uncontrolled, too-rapid ascent. All of a sudden, we hit an overhead wall, which stopped our ascent at a depth of 9 m/30 ft. 

We looked at each other, and gave the OK hand signal. While decompressing, following the old Scubapro SOS mechanical computer, I started to pull up the loose line until the dive reel appeared. Wow, we sure had an awful lot of loose line floating around us. Were we extremely lucky? Of course, we were. Our problem was that we never planned our dive, and consequently, were unable to dive a plan.

After that dive, I worked with Scuba Pro and Sportsways to create the “Octopus,” or “safe second.” A while later, the octopus appeared for the first time in Scuba Pro catalogs. I was also the first to add a pressure gauge along with the Octopus.

Hal Watts set the world deep air record to 120m/390 ft in 1967

Ah yes, the “Safe Second.” That’s what NASDS called backup second stages, right? Sheck Exley (1949-1994), the legendary cave explorer with whom you were friends, was also credited with fitting a redundant second stage reg with a necklace. I want to ask you more about Exley, but first, I want to know: What are the best wrecks you ever dived?

This is really very hard to answer. I’ll have to list four, in the order that I dived them: the USS Monitor, Andrea Doria, Japanese wrecks located in Truk Lagoon, and the Lusitania in Ireland.

The most important would have to be the USS Monitor, a submarine used during the Civil War. A group of well-known USA divers applied to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for a permit to dive the Monitor, as she was located in protected waters. In addition to myself, the group consisted of: Gary Gentile, attorney Peter Hess, and several other well-known expert divers. At first, NOAA refused. Then, Peter Hess filed proper papers asking that we get the NOAA permit. To that end, we presented my Deep Air training material to the concerned NOAA group. I appeared as an expert witness and provided NOAA staff and their legal representatives with my internationally accepted training material and my record of training several world record deep air divers. Our deep air training has been accepted worldwide with zero diving deaths. After that, we received the permit. 

Other than the Monitor, my favorite deep wreck dive would be the Lusitania, which is a very personal and proud story for me. The main reason is because venture capitalist Gregg Bemis owned the diving rights to the Lucey at the time. Gregg had contacted me requesting that I train him on PSAI Narcosis Management Level V, on air—which is 73 m/240 ft—and then train him on trimix so he and I could dive to 91 m/300 ft on the Lusitania lying off the coast of Ireland. 

When word got out that I had enrolled Gregg in my Narcosis Management Course, a well-known international course director (a personal friend of mine) called and told me, “Hal, do not teach Gregg deep diving.” 

PSAI’s ad in aquaCORPS Journal circa 1994 offering deep air training.

He told me that he had been training Gregg at his facility, and that he was a “train wreck.” “He is from a very well-off family in Texas, and if you cause him any injuries, you will be sued and put out of business,” my friend said. Well, guess what? Gregg completed the 240 Level V Deep Air course, then our PSAI Trimix course. My wife, Jan Watts, Gregg, and I went to Ireland to dive the Lusitania. He and I made an awesome 91 m/300 ft trimix dive to the deck.

Diving on the Andrea Doria with Tom Mount, Peter Hess, and several great wreck divers was also an awesome dive. Last but not least was a great trip to Truk to dive on some of the Japanese wrecks.

Please tell us about Sheck.  What was your relationship with him like?

Sheck and I became friends and made several dives together, and one of my favorites happened when Sheck, his Mary Ellen, my wife Jan, and I were diving at 40 Fathoms. Sheck wanted to practice gas switches during descents. Sheck was practicing, getting ready for a planned very deep dive (I think in Mexico with Jim Bowden). The four of us swam to the east side of The Grotto, slowly following the wall during our controlled descent, watching Sheck practice gas switching. 

Sheck Exley and Hal Watts at a NSS-CDS conference

After reaching our planned depth of 73 m/240 ft, we began our controlled ascent up to our first planned deco stop. During our last deco stop on our 4.5 m/15 ft platforms, I noticed that Sheck had a funny look on his face and was messing with his drysuit between his legs. I remembered then that he had told me that he had an attachment installed in the drysuit that would allow him to pee underwater. He was clearly in a bit of discomfort and Mary Ellen, Jan and I just floated nearby and watched.

I’ve heard that Sheck later used diapers, or just cut it loose in one of his old neoprene drysuits on his big dives, so evidently he didn’t get that early p-valve to work. What about your friendship and job collaboration with Gary Taylor, your brother-in-arms and a co-owner of PSAI?

Andrea, get comfortable, since this question will take some time to properly answer.

I first met Gary in Miami, which is where we became friends when I was staying in his home and taking Tom Mount’s nitrox course.  I have a photo of Tom, Gary, and me gas blending on the floor of Tom’s garage. During the course, Tom was still using his worn-out hand written paper flip charts as his notes.

Gary was impressed with my deep air program and offered to put together an updated slideshow presentation for me to teach with. PSAI still uses an updated version of this system to date. Gary stayed with Tom until Tom thought he had sold IANTD [International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers] to another individual. After that sale came about, Gary contacted me wanting to get more involved with PSAI. Being smarter than folks thought I was, I jumped at the chance to have Gary on the PSAI Team. Tom’s deal fell through, but Gary was totally involved with PSAI, and now is a partner and president of our agency. Thanks to Gary and Tom. 

Many, many years ago I was still taking some type of classes—I think regarding mixed gasses, maybe with Rebreathers—at Tom’s house. In fact, I was one of Tom’s instructors who did the final proofreading of one of Kevin Gurr’s manuals. Too far back to recall much about this mixed gas stuff—remember my reputation for being a deep air diver.

Tom Mount and Gary Taylor mixing up some trimix in the garage.

Speaking of the people with whom you’ve dived, was the aim of The Forty Fathom Scubapros Club?

Before I invested in a sinkhole in the Ocala, Florida, area—which was locally referred to as Blue Sink or Zuber Sink, and is now referred to as 40 Fathom Grotto—several diving buddies whom I had dived with and trained for extreme deep air diving—as well as cave exploring—got together and planned to dive The Grotto at least one Friday night per month. Within a short period of time, several other buddies joined our group, which eventually became known as The 40 Fathom Scubapro’s dive club. Each diver had to meet my requirements of training. 

Forty Fathom Grotto aka Zuber Sink
An early Sheck Exley mix course at Forty Fathom Grotto
An Eric Hutcheson drawing of Forty Fathom Grotto

Eventually, our group set specific personal requirements—being a good person, supporting our club safety rules, and making at least one 40 Fathom Grotto dive per month. We set a limit of 14 or 15 members. Three 40 Fathom members eventually set World Records for deep air: I was one, A. J. Muns, and Herb Johnson set ocean records, and later I set the air depth record for cave diving. Naturally, as time passed and we got older, our membership got smaller. It is notable that none of our club members have died during any scuba dive.

Finally, what led you to create the iconic motto, “Plan Your Dive. Dive Your Plan?” 

I used to be a private pilot, and we used to say, “Plan your flight, fly your plan.” This was back in probably 1961 when I had just started diving and there were so many instances where all the other divers would get in the water without saying anything. I’ve seen so many incidents and fatalities that could have been avoided through proper planning.

Dive Deeper

ScubaGuru: LXD 029 : Hal Watts – Record Deep Diver & Technical Diving Pioneer

Netdoc: Netdoc chats with Mr Scuba, Hal Watts

InDEPTH: The First Helium-based Mix Dives Conducted by Pre-Tech Explorers (1967-1988) by Chris Werner

Alert Diver.Eu: Rapture of the Tech: Depth, Narcosis and Training Agencies

Professional Scuba Association International: PSAI History


Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and PSAI technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of PHY Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. He published his first book, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti (2018) and IMMERSIONI SELVAGGE, the new one is on the way, out on fall 2022. 

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