Three-Diver Rotation

Proficiency starts with progressive training that will give your divers step-by-step instruction to overcome stressful situations, become healthier and stronger, and recognize and solve problems quickly. (Photos by author.)
Proficiency starts with progressive training that will give your divers step-by-step instruction to overcome stressful situations, become healthier and stronger, and recognize and solve problems quickly. (Photos by author.)

The rotation in which you deploy your public safety divers whether in training or on operational calls should always reflect on the side of safety for the diver by using a three-diver rotation. All three divers shall be tethered with communications rope from a designated tender. There should be a primary diver doing the initial search; a backup diver (safety diver) completely dressed and in the water, positioned next to the primary tender; and a 90 percent diver who is fully dressed excluding mask and fins, positioned close by the dive operation. This three-diver concept will increase your safety and allow for a quick response to a diver emergency. This is primarily for the protection of divers as well as the efficient process of making a thorough and safe operation.

The Dive Rotation

There are several ways teams deploy their divers today that could cause a major delay in response in rescuing and locating the primary diver if he has an underwater emergency.

  1. Diving with no backup diver in place or diving alone with no one to respond to an emergency.
  2. Diving untethered and without verbal communication. This gives the primary diver no chance of shore support and leaves other divers with no opportunity to render aid to the primary diver. They will be unaware of the diver’s location, and it could take hours to relocate the primary diver.
  3. Dive teams that dive the buddy system (two divers at once) have a separate set of issues when searching in zero visibility and becoming separated from each other. In this instance, you would now have two divers who may have issues and be unaware of their location.


Statistics show that a majority of all dive fatalities occur in the training and recovery mode of diving where there is no chance of saving a life. Over the past five years, the International Association of Dive Rescue Specialists (IADRS) has recorded several diver fatalities that required deployment of a backup diver or the request for assistance from other teams. This caused major delays in response to the diver’s emergency needs with devastating outcomes. The three-diver rotation is being used more often with public safety dive teams and is proven effective. This is a must to keep our divers safe.

Using the three-diver concept, full communications, and being tethered do not always give you 100-percent protection. Just like with all other tasks we do in the public safety field, we need to be proficient at what we do. Proficiency starts with progressive training that will give your divers step-by-step instruction to overcome stressful situations, become healthier and stronger, and recognize and solve problems quickly. Proficiency is achieved by controlled, in-water drills building on simple problems and working to more advanced and difficult situations while being placed under forms of stress and fatigue. At no time shall you introduce hazing with unachievable outcomes in your training program.

Proficiency is also obtained through general knowledge and understanding of the position of the backup diver (safety diver), annual scenario-based drills, repetitive and methodical drills in a controlled environment with some stressors, and physical fitness awareness.

Diver Health

Statistics have shown a diver’s health plays a key role in the outcome of an emergency under stress. The backup diver’s cardio output and ability to recover quickly play key roles in the rescue.

The healthier the diver, the better the survival chance for him and those he may have to rescue. Healthy divers have better air consumption rates and respond more proficiently under stressful situations. The unfit diver can cause delays in both mental and physical abilities to solve simple problems, which is connected to diver fatalities. An unfit diver runs the risk of underlying medical issues that will only add to the already stressful situation.

Minimum standards for evaluating a diver’s physical ability have been set with IADRS swim testing and scuba evaluation. Tests include evaluating the diver’s comfort in the water, cardio ability, and recovery time. The IADRS provides a swim test to help build your team’s cardio readiness (

Neurological Exams

Pre- and post-neurological exams establish a good baseline for all divers and are a must prior to each dive. Knowing the physical and mental state of a diver as well as obtaining baseline vitals prior to a dive will give you a snapshot of the diver before he enters the water and allows you to quickly focus and start treatment of any injury the diver may have after the dive. It also gives EMTs and hospital staff a written flowchart of what is now presenting itself as the issue compared to the predive neuro. The pre- and post-dive neuro exam should be conducted prior to each daily dive and within the first 20-30 minutes after the dive.

Annual physicals will also keep your diver safe and prepared for operational readiness as well as catch early warning signs and treatment areas. General testing involves the following:

  • Treadmill.
  • Body mass index.
  • VO2 max.
  • Chest X-ray.
  • Hearing and vision.
  • Blood testing (iron, lead, TB, E. coli).
  • Shot series (hepatitis series, tetanus).

Diver Checks

Effective diver checks start with general knowledge and standardization of equipment and proficiency in donning and doffing. Having to deal with a diver’s equipment in an emergency in zero visibility, under stress, and in a time critical situation without standardization can only complicate the situation.

  • Diver checks should include the following:
  • Know your equipment and be sure it is the right equipment for the dive you are making.
  • Be consistent in donning and doffing of equipment.
  • Build muscle memory maneuvers with equipment into your training.
  • Safety checks done by the backup and 90-percent diver will allow a mental picture of gear orientation.

Placement of the Divers

Placement of the backup diver is critical to success for a speedy and accurate deployment. The tender must be well trained in the backup diver’s positioning and communication. The backup diver must be in all dive gear; face mask on; air dumped from the buoyancy control device (BCD); and ready to quickly slide the primary line, keeping an uninterrupted communication with the primary tender.

Backup diver positioning for selected patterns includes the following:

  1. Parallel bank search.
    • Diver should be placed in the center of the pattern.
  2. Fan pattern.
    • Diver should be placed at the foot of the tender.
  3. Boat based.
    • Diver should be in the primary boat next to the primary tender (90-percent diver in the next boat).

For the backup diver to be successful in reaching the primary diver takes training and continued practice, including the following:

Proper weighting in achieving negative buoyancy.

  • Being able to clear quickly.
  • Being able to keep the backup tethered line from becoming entangled.
  • Being able to deploy the rapid intervention team bottle/pack.
  • Being able to control the situation once the primary diver is reached.
  • Being able to successfully clear the primary diver of entanglements and controlled ascent.
  • Being able to successfully keep the primary diver positively buoyant on the surface.
  • Being able to surface swim/assist the primary diver to the shore.

Make sure to establish a step-by-step diver emergency procedure and a protocol for diver emergency deployment and diver medical treatment.

Procedure for Deploying the Backup Diver

  • Ensure the backup diver is fully dressed, safety checked, and placed by the primary tender.
  • Quickly and efficiently slide the line to the diver in trouble.
  • Establish negative buoyancy immediately.
  • Use caution on your approach and tangling lines.
  • Do not pull the primary diver’s rope as you descend.
  • Clear successfully as you descend fast.
  • Clear any entanglement.
  • Ensure the diver is not attached to the bottom while trying to ascend.
  • Drop primary diver weights/belt.
  • Maintain positive contact and controlled ascent to the surface or control contour ascent.
  • Manage the dry suit and BCD control.
  • Once at the surface, establish positive buoyancy for both divers.
  • Manually inflate primary diver BCD if necessary.
  • Diver tow/surface swim to shore.
  • Assist primary diver to shore with support personnel.
  • Overcome shore terrain issues (sand, mud, debris, etc.).

Strategies for Success

Successfully taking on the role of backup diver and successfully deploying take proficient training and continued practice. The most experienced diver should be considered to take that responsibility of backup diver. All other divers should continue to train as the backup diver in a controlled environment building skills, confidence, and ability.

Ensure you are documenting pre- and post-dive neuro exams and have them available on site. Ensure successful diver checks and standardization of dive gear prior to the dive. Proper placement of the backup diver on shore is key for speedy deployment. Ensure you have sound emergency diver procedures for all divers to follow in an emergency. Hold annual scenario-based training, involve multiple agencies, and critique things to improve. Scenario-based drills should only be attempted after successful pool sessions or in a controlled environment. Be prepared for your next dive.

Clarion UX