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Technically Speaking: Closed Circuit Voodoo

Closed Circuit Voodoo

It’s only for military, scientists and top photographers. This is what I heard being said to me, and what prompted me to write this article.

Is Closed Circuit Rebreather (CCR) such an evil machine; to such extend that some would consider it the realm of experts and commercial dive work? Does it require military style training to become proficient in its use?

Rebreathers gained popularity in the late nineties becoming widespread within the technical diving realm at a fast rate. The popularity increase, it seems, may have been due to mixed gas diving. As use of Trimix increased enabling divers to reach wrecks and caves at greater depth, so did the price of dives.

 Helium has always been a very expensive gas to use and the logistics of doing deep dives on open circuit scuba also became more restrictive. Divers looked at ways to make these dives more affordable, safer, and with simpler logistics.

Everything pointed to use of rebreathers as the answer to these questions. They are efficient in gas use, and made deeper dives possible. With Open Circuit to achieve anything significant at depth, such as taking photos, video, or doing surveys was not practical and logistics were huge and expensive. But rebreathers make these tasks possible, and it’s been proven on many significant expeditions and projects around the world, just what is possible to achieve when you have time down there, or miles into a cave system.

But is this technology only for the technical diver? Definitely not; even though my personal transition was to dive wrecks and caves, that are hard to reach with Open Circuit, but also to me this made sense. It was safer to do deep dives on the wrecks, and it made possible for me to shoot video of these sites of a quality that was possible to use on television. But is deep and cave diving the only place I use a CCR? Not at all, in fact even on the shallowest of reef dives I use my rebreather. When I am diving on a reef, time is of no essence and I feel like I am blending with the environment and animals around me. Going back to Open Circuit when a CCR is not an option, reminds you just why you dive a rebreather.

But you don’t need to be a full technical diver to enjoy CCR diving. Some people are just enthusiasts who love the technology, and even make their own units at home.
With over ten years since rebreathers broke into the mainstream diving more recreational units entering the market. Recreational training agencies have entered into the rebreather market with the development of courses to divers keen to take on CCR.

Still, there seems to be a fear within the industry of CCR, and I’m not sure that this fear is truly warranted.

CCR reputation was not really seen as positive in the early days. Possibly due to a number of fatalities, though most CCR’s involved in most of the recorded accidents were not blamed. User error was the predominant factor contributing to death.

The fatality never the less makes people stand up and take notice. These days any fatality on a rebreather makes the international community probe the reasons, and over the last ten years all fatalities have been user error related. The bashing that rebreathers receive is not warranted.

When people argue this point with me, I refer them to the amount of fatalities in recreational scuba, a number which overshadows any technical diving or rebreather fatality. Like any activity or action sport there will be accidents and fatalities, and rebreather divers are not immune to this.  It is worthwhile noting that in the last 5 years we had a dramatic drop in fatalities around the world.

Some groups such as GUE argue that only Semi Closed Circuit Rebreather (SCR), is safe to use since it have no electronics to control gas injection. We always hear how there never been a fatality on an RB80 rebreather! And there is a reason for this; firstly the quantity of units out there is very small compare to volume of CCR’s. Secondly the training process to be able to purchase an RB80 is gruelling, which can be argued as good or too much. GUE may have a perfect record on the RB80, but the style of diving and philosophy they teach is not for everyone.

The question is how do we prevent accidents on CCR’s? Does the training have to be military style? And are they for specific group of users?

CCR’s are not complex and the technology is not new. In fact rebreathers were used before scuba was invented. But they have developed with new technologies to make them safer, and user friendly. The fact they are easy to use makes them available to a wide range of divers, and not only to military, commercial or experts of any kind. By saying otherwise is like saying the rest of people are just not smart enough, to be trusted to dive using a CCR! Havening said that, I have come a cross people that should not be allowed near any scuba diving equipment – period!

Unlike a few years a go when CCR’s where used mainly by technical divers, the recreational market now seeing more CCR’s targeted at your average open water diver. How much this will take off is yet to be seen, but this means that manufacturers are seeing the popularity of rebreathers.

Training agencies such as PADI are releasing programs specific for the recreational diver. But these programs will extend all the way to the more serious units for the technical divers. How successful these programs will be is also to be seen, as the technical diving agencies such as TDI, IANTD been teaching rebreather courses for some years now.

It’s this training that will be the key to making CCR’s safer, and removing the bad reputation as dangerous device. But does it need to be so gruelling like GUE does on the RB80, and military like? I don’t think so. But in general I think initial training should be tougher. When you look at the demographic of students, they tend to be either Tech divers with years of experience, or they are completely new to diving. We can’t possibly be writing courses to accommodate each group and experiences, so there must be a common ground for all.

Taking up a rebreather is like starting to learn to dive all over again, everything from buoyancy to simple act of mask clearing. All these things and more need to be learned again, and many Open Circuit habits need to change. So it doesn’t matter if you are an expert technical diver, or someone just started to dive. In fact new divers are better candidates to learn to dive rebreathers, since they don’t need to change any old habits and learn everything new from day one. But there are also more to teaching a new diver as opposed to someone experienced.

One area of teaching that should be improved is when crossing over between different units. The principles of CCR’s are all the same, but it’s the configuration of each unit that is different. What usually happens with rebreather divers is that you gain muscle memory when operating a particular unit, you don’t look what buttons you press, and you operate everything by feel. It’s just the experience over time that allows this. So when moving to a new unit, it’s back to learning new buttons, and taking the time to become one with the unit so to say.

Often you’ll hear people say that it’s not a good idea to own different types of units, as you will never learn one unit proficiently enough. Can’t say I agree totally, but it does make sense.

To what extend does this cross over training should be tougher? Probably to give enough time that the student can show confidence in the unit, and be completely comfortable in it’s use. The instructor should be able to gauge this, and decide when the student is ready.

Education is probably the most important factor in creating safe divers. As most, if not all accidents on rebreathers are user error.  This is the area that education needs to address to make sure that students are not complacent, especially after diving a CCR for a few years. It’s the experienced divers that tend to be the biggest group to have accidents.  But at the same time education must not be such, that it stops the progression of CCR diving. We must ensure that courses are hard enough to make one appreciate the dangers of complacency.

CCR is not a Voodoo machine or some kind of weapon out to kill you, though they can and will do if the user doesn’t take the time to learn it and take the time needed to do so. This is the biggest problem with divers, is the urgency to start doing complex dives. CCR’s make diving much easier, but they also open the way for divers that are not ready to go deep early. This mentality must change!

Diving a rebreather is an amazing thing to do. If you looking at taking up rebreather diving, you need to be ready to learn diving all over again, be ready to spend lots and lots of hours in shallow water, progress your skills until you and the unit as one, and only then you should even think about taking the next step into the Tech diving limits.

Any kind of rebreather is a safe machine in the hands of good divers, but they need respect and diligence. If you can’t respect and take the time to learn a rebreather, then they are not for you.

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