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Situational Awareness and Decision Making in Diving

Situational awareness is critical to diving safety, right? But how much of your mental capacity should be devoted to situational monitoring, e.g., How deep am I? How much gas do I have? Where is my buddy? Where is my boat? More importantly, how does one develop that capacity? Here GUE Instructor Trainer Guy Shockey, who is also a human factors or non-technical skills instructor, explores the nature and importance of situational awareness, and what you can do to up your game.

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By Guy Shockey
Header photo by Kirill Egorov

It is not surprising that given the nature of the activity and its heavy reliance on equipment, the majority of diving discussions focus on the “technological” side of diving which includes equipment, gases, decompression, etc. These discussions will assuredly still continue but over the last few years we have seen a renewed focus on what we refer to as “Human Factors” (HF) and their role in technical diving and diving in general. 

I for one am happy with this shift in emphasis; regardless of what equipment, gases or deco protocols you are using, HF is always a part of the equation. It strikes me as a bit odd that divers would spend hundreds and thousands of dollars trying to find the “perfect” bolt snap or retractor and ignore training the “human in the system”.  This despite the knowledge that we can learn how to be better decision makers once we are aware of just what things influence our decision making. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what gear configuration or equipment or gases we are using if we have no ability to make good decisions while diving. It doesn’t matter a lot what “make of vehicle” I drive, if I don’t make smart decisions while driving. 

Thankfully, there has been a sea change in this attitude and today, just about every diving conference, magazine or blog has started discussing Human Factors or non-technical skills (NTS). As an active GUE instructor, I have tried to stay current with this and include HF training in all my classes in some capacity. I believe HF becomes more important as the diver progresses in their technical training, and even more so if they make the shift to CCR diving. Regardless of the level of diving though, the one common feature of all divers is, as Human Factors coach, Gareth Lock writes, “the human in the system.” It seems only logical then that it would make sense to turn our attention onto the human diver.

Brain Capacity

Human Factors includes many aspects of understanding our decision making process, however, I believe there is one aspect of HF and NTS training that is particularly relevant to every diver. The concept of “Situational Awareness” (SA) has been a buzzword for several years now, but only more recently have we started to talk about it in terms of HF and diving. Former Chief Scientist for the United States Air Force, engineer Mica Endsley has been one of the luminaries on the subject of situational awareness and defines it as “the perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future”. This is a simple yet powerful sentence and deserves more consideration.

A lot going on.
Photo courtesy of Jarrod Jablonski.

The new diver or a diver working at the limits of their capacity in a new training or diving environment has a limited amount of internal RAM (random access memory) or CPU (central processing unit) power to call on to make decisions. They are typically overwhelmed by a new environment that includes changes in sight (everything is closer), sound (it travels faster underwater), physical changes on the body (changes in drysuit or wetsuit pressure), temperature (usually colder), and the overwhelming knowledge that humans are using life support equipment to operate in a hostile environment. Within that environment we are expecting divers to also monitor depth, time, location, team, gas, etc.  Then, if there is an emergency, we also expect them to react with precision and skill to solve the problem. And finally, our expectation is that we are doing all this for fun!

In summary, what we are expecting is for our divers to maintain a high level of situational awareness while operating in a hostile environment and maintaining enough capacity to deal with emergencies.  Seems simple on paper right? 

It is readily apparent to any instructor that trying to monitor situational awareness is an overwhelming task for new divers or those divers pushing their training limits in a more advanced class. If the typical diver, who originally started diving to have fun, is using 75% of their capacity just to monitor their situational awareness (Where am I? How deep am I? How much gas do I have? Where is my buddy? Where is my boat? etc.) they only have 25% of their remaining capacity to do what they intended to do. 

The GUE philosophy is to train in such a fashion that we are able to switch this around in order to effectively dedicate 25% of our capacity to situational awareness monitoring and thus have 75% of our capacity to do what we came to do: have fun! There is an interesting yet critical corollary of this change in that when the first diver has an emergency they have only 25% of their capacity to dedicate to the problem. Contrast this to the trained GUE diver who has 75% of their capacity to help solve the emergency. 

Helper Muscle

Positioning in a team of three during a safety drill.
Photo courtesy of GUE archives.

GUE classes are intended to help build your situational awareness while also developing fundamental skills for the level of training you are doing. Hence, it is not enough to just “do an S-drill” (check to see the long hose is not encumbered); we expect you to “do an S-drill” while also being aware of your position in the water column, proximity to the line, and awareness of your team mates. 

Consider SA as a “helper muscle” that we are developing while also working on the primary muscles. A good analogy might be using dumb bells for a chest press in a gym which requires you to stabilize the weight while also pushing it upward. This is quite different from doing a similar exercise on a machine where rails or tracks keep the load stabilized while you push or pull it. We carry this forward into our upper level classes where we require an even higher level of situational awareness such as tracking gas by time, etc. 

It is for this reason that I have become more and more convinced that situational awareness is quite possibly the most important skill that a diver must develop. As Endsley wrote, “As technology has evolved, many complex, dynamic systems have been created that tax the abilities of humans to act as effective timely decision makers when operating these systems”.  As GUE has moved into the CCR training world, I believe we are seeing just how prophetic this statement from over 20 years ago actually is. 

SA is not just about “what is” but about “what will be”. In this aspect it requires the diver to first recognize the situation, then analyze what it means, and then project into the future how it will affect them. As the environment the diver is operating within continues to change, SA management becomes a complex and ever-changing exercise. Further, it stands to reason that poor SA will lead to poor decision making. 

Developing Situational Awareness

The net result is that good situational awareness will help the diver in their decision-making process. It will help free up some mental and physical capacity to enjoy their dive and even perhaps more importantly, it will provide extra resources when dealing with problems and emergencies. GUE instruction is designed to encourage growth in your building “SA”. So the next time your debriefing includes a critique of more than just the demonstrated skill, be assured that we are doing this for a reason and to make your diving more enjoyable and safer. 

Developing situational awareness will not happen without consciously working on it. One way you can do this on every dive is by making a conscious effort to anticipate your expected gas usage and then verifying it every five minutes. You can also work on anticipating the next step or waypoint in your dive and arriving there ready to perform whatever action you are expected to do. 

For example, if you are the one expected to deploy a surface marker buoy (SMB) at the 20 minute mark, then anticipate that and arrive at that time waypoint with the SMB out of your pocket and ready to deploy. If you are the one running a line from the shot line to the wreck, then arrive at the bottom of the shot line with the reel out and ready to go. These are only a few of the ways you can work on developing your situational awareness and you will find it gets easier over time.

Keep practicing and you will be able to master most any situation.
Photo courtesy of Jong Moon Lee.

I tell my students that learning how to plan and complete a dive is not unlike learning a new dance where at first you may need numbered footprints on the ground telling you what foot to place and where. Then after practicing a few times, you can remove the footprints and then soon your footwork becomes second nature and you can concentrate on smiling at your dance partner as you prepare for the next “So You Think You Can Dance” tryout. 

Make every dive an effort to develop your situational awareness. It will pay off handsomely in terms of making you a more relaxed and confident diver. Before you know it, you will be doing things subconsciously that used to require significant RAM. This will make your diving more enjoyable and you will retain lots of capacity for problem solving, and worrying about your next dance lesson.

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Guy Shockey is a GUE instructor and trainer who is actively involved in mentoring the next generation of GUE divers. He started diving in 1982 in a cold mountain lake in Alberta, Canada. Since then he has logged somewhere close to 8,000 dives in most of the oceans of the world. He is a passionate technical diver with a particular interest in deeper ocean wreck diving. He is a former military officer and professional hunter with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. He is also an entrepreneur with several successful startup companies to his credit.

Community

Risk-Takers, Thrill-Seekers, Sensation-Seekers, and … You?

It’s likely that many in our community no longer think of tech diving as a risky activity, or perhaps even appreciate how important taking risks may be to one’s personal health—let alone that of our species. Fortunately, InDEPTH’s copy editing manager Pat Jablonski dived deep into the origins, meaning, and benefits of regularly taking risks, and even offers a thrill-seeking quiz for your edgy edification. What have you got to lose?

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by Pat Jablonski. Title photo courtesy of Katelyn Compton Escott.

“Life without risk is not worth living.” – Charles Lindbergh

What defines a risk? What is involved in taking a risk?

Difficult questions to answer, because something that feels risky to one person might be yawn-worthy to another. Risk taking, unscientifically, is something you do that gets your blood up, raises your heartbeat, awakens your senses, and makes you hyper-aware of your surroundings.

Surely we can agree that the Covid pandemic has added an unexpected level of risk to everyday life. Add poor drivers, mass shootings, contentious politics, global climate change, and many are left believing that meeting each day is risky enough. But that’s not true for people who identify as risk-takers or thrill-seekers.

“Everyone has a ‘risk muscle’. You keep in shape by trying new things. If you don’t, it atrophies. Make a point of using it once a day.” – Roger Von Tech

There are many activities that go to the trouble of defining the level of risk involved with a specific activity, and while that’s not the purpose of this article, you should know that scuba diving ranks fairly high on the risky behavior scale–higher than skydiving and rappelling. And, cave/wreck diving or freediving isn’t on any risk scale we could locate. We can assume it’s up there—near or at the top.

Fock A. Analysis of recreational closed-circuit rebreather deaths 1998–2010 Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine. 2013 Volume 43, No. 2. With the caveat that they are “best guess numbers,” Fock concluded that rebreather diving is likely 5-10x as risky as open circuit scuba diving, accounting for about 4-5 deaths per 100,000 dives, compared to about 0.4 to 0.5 deaths per 100k dives for open circuit scuba. This makes rebreather diving more risky than skydiving at .99/100k, but far less risky than base-jumping at 43 deaths/100k. The current belief is that rebreather diving has gotten safer.

Divers are a fairly small niche group for many reasons. One of them could involve the degree of danger associated with the sport. Answer this: Do dry land people ever ask you why you would want to take such a chance with your life in order to go where you weren’t meant to go? 

It’s a reasonable question, albeit a hard one to answer.

Photo courtesy of Glen Kwan

“A life without risk is a life unlived, my friend.” – Big Time Rush

Kevin Costner’s Waterworld aside, humans have (yet) to be born with gills or webbed toes. Still, there you are. You’ve spent unmentionable amounts of money. You’ve carved out a whole day, or maybe weeks, away from your to-do list. You’re suited up and look like an alien. You’re on a quest to explore the aquatic world where you’re able to breathe only with a cumbersome apparatus. You’re planning to explore inner space! You’re going to delve into that amazing realm that’s off limits to most people. 

You may look all matter-of-fact, cool as a cucumber, another day at the office, but it’s a thrill, isn’t it? Inside, you’re a kid with butterflies in your tummy who’s getting away with something big and exciting. Okay, it’s true–you and your team are highly trained, your equipment is top-notch, every box is checked off, and you are behaving responsibly. However, you’d have to be in a coma to not realize that what you’re about to do is taking a risk. Who doesn’t know that people have died doing what you’re doing? Answer honestly: How much more exhilarating is the experience when you know it’s not a walk in the park? Our own Michael Menduno admitted that “the feeling of being more alive lasted for days” after a dive.

So, you’re a diver. Does that mean you’re a risk taker? A thrill seeker? A sensation seeker?

Let’s dive into that subject, first by taking a little quiz, shall we? 

Photo courtesy of SJ Alice Bennett

From A Death Wish to Life Is Precious

In the past, too many mental health professionals treated risky behavior like a disease in need of a cure, focusing on the negative side of risk, even using government funding to address risky behavior and stamp it out. 

Before that, Sigmund Freud might have even believed that thrill seekers had a death wish; in fact, it’s what was believed for many years. 

Modern-day science doesn’t support either theory.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” – TS Elliot

For our purposes, we’re focusing on the positive aspects of taking chances, pushing boundaries, and seeking experiences that make life feel . . . more alive. Richer. Fuller. We want to examine what goes into the psyche of a person (like you?) who is enthusiastically willing to engage in an activity already identified as dangerous, possibly even by the people who are engaging in it, and hear what some experts on the subject have to say about such people.

Photo courtesy of Jen MacKinnon

The University of Michigan’s Daniel Kruger proposes that taking chances is a fundamental part of human nature going all the way back to our ancient ancestors—prehistoric humans who had to constantly put their safety on the line in their fight for survival. Think fighting off a wooly mammoth with a stick. Kruger believes we have consequently retained many of those same instincts today, and he believes that it’s a good thing. 

This writer, who is related to a major risk-taker, has always believed that heart-quickening experiences are essential for a well-lived life. I’m convinced and have long proposed that those pulse-pounding moments are often accompanied by a deepened understanding of and appreciation for one’s life—perhaps all life. And I’m happy to report that current science confirms that belief.

“If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” – Jim Rohn

Dr. Kruger is one of the scientists who proposes that taking risks means “seeking that moment when life feels most precious.

This should not be news for you diving adventurers out there.

Nature vs. Nurture: Born That Way or Learned To Love Adventure

Another scientist, Marvin Zuckerberg, affirms the theory that risk taking is in our DNA. “Certain people have high sensation-seeking personalities that demand challenges and seek out environments that most people’s brains are geared to avoid.” I’ll go out on a limb and say that underwater caves or shipwrecks would qualify as environments most would avoid.

Dr. Cynthia Thompson, the researcher behind a 2014 study from the University of British Columbia, was early to look at the genetic factors that might make a person predisposed to participating in extreme sports, ones that are typically defined as activities where death is a real possibility. The results of her study revealed that risk-takers shared a similar genetic constitution, a genetic variant that influences how powerful feelings are during intense situations.

Photo courtesy of Steve Boisvert

Most scientists agree that personality is a complicated mix of genetic and environmental influences. The “nature vs. nurture” dilemma is alive and well. Dr. Thompson concluded that people who engaged in so-called high-risk sports were not impulsive at all, not reckless either. Instead, “they’re highly skilled masters of their discipline who take a very thoughtful approach to their sports.”

A study conducted in 2019 examined human boundaries, people who pushed them to their limits and beyond, and what made those people tick. Zuckerman labeled such people “sensation seekers” and defined them as “people who chase novel, complex, and intense sensations, who love experience for its own sake, and who may take risks to pursue those experiences.” Is that you?

“History is full of risk-takers. In fact, you could say that risk-takers are the ones who get to make history.” – Daniel Kruger

Other experts posit an alternate theory—one proposing that modern society in the age of seatbelts, guardrails, child-proof caps, safety precautions, laws, rules, and regulations has dulled the sense of survival. In other words, life has flattened out and no longer feels exciting, or risky. So, is one of the reasons we seek excitement because of boredom? 

Maslow’s Theory of Self-actualization

I don’t honestly know who was the first proponent of risk-taking being a positive thing, but the work of Abraham Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology, was one of the first. Maslow became one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, and he developed a theory of human motivation that advocates for “peak experiences.” Peak experiences are not attained without risk.

“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again” – A Maslow

He proposed that, in addition to meeting basic needs, all humans from birth seek fulfillment in terms of what he called self-actualization—finding their purpose/being authentic. Self-actualization involves peak experiences—those life-altering moments that take us outside ourselves, make us feel one with nature, and allow us to experience a sense of wonder and awe. Maslow also believed that those who were able to have such peak experiences tended to seek them out rather than waiting for the next random occurrence. Hence the anticipation of the next dive?

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Anonymous

Photo courtesy of Adam Haydock

Out of Your Comfort Zone Into A World of Wonder

Psychologist Eric Brymer from Queenstown University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, has spent years studying extreme athletes and has this to say: “They’re actually extremely well-prepared, careful, intelligent, and thoughtful athletes with high levels of self-awareness and a deep knowledge of the environment and of the activity.”

Recent research backs up what some extreme sports athletes have been saying for years, even if only to themselves.

“What participants get from extreme sports is deeply transformational, a sense of connecting with a deep sense of self and being authentic, a powerful relationship with the natural world, a sense of freedom,” says Brymer. “They get a strong sense of living life to its fullest as if touching their full potential.”

Brymer’s comments mirror what Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology, said back in the 1940s.

We’re not advocating for taking stupid chances (such as diving without proper training, or necessary precautions) and we don’t believe anyone reading this article does that. We simply intended to focus on the scientific evidence that supports adventurers—people who get a thrill from an activity that offers—as a bonus; a chance to feel awakened from the mundane and thrust into a world of wonder. 

Risk-takers and sensation- or thrill-seekers chase unique experiences. Often, those experiences bring awareness of important issues or increase essential knowledge about the planet we share. Many people overanalyze and dither when faced with an unfamiliar situation; they shy away from unsettling circumstances. Risk-takers face the unknown and trust themselves to prevail. Learning to scuba dive, for example, pushes people out of their comfort zone, takes them into a realm foreign and mysterious. Diving forces divers to pay complete attention to a task, to focus with laser-like precision in order to conquer misgivings, and to attain a skill that few others have. Confidence comes with accomplishment. Leadership emerges. Fear is overcome. 

Sensation-seekers see potential stressors as challenges to be met rather than threats that might defeat them. With action, resilience develops. High sensation-seekers report lower perceived stress, more positive emotions, and greater life satisfaction. Engaging in extreme activities brings them peace. 

What does it bring you?

Dive Deeper

Bandolier: Risk of dying and sporting activities

National Geographic: What Makes Risk Takers Tempt Fate? Recent research suggests that genetic, environmental, and personal factors can make people take on risky—even potentially fatal—challenges.

Healthday: Taking Risks By Chris Woolston HealthDay Reporter


Pat Jablonski heads up the copy edit team for InDEPTH. She is a blogger, a writer of stories, a retired tutor, English writing teacher, and therapist. She’s a friend, a wife, a proud mother and grandmother. She is also a native of Florida, having spent most of her life in Palm Beach County. She has a B.A. in English from FAU in Boca Raton and an M.S.W. from Barry University in Miami. She learned to swim in the ocean, a place she thinks of as home, but she doesn’t dive.

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