Dive teams like Chesterfield, Virginia; Wilmington, North Carolina; Boston, Massachusetts and all our military dive teams use these surface supply setups on a part-time, if not full-time basis. What follows are some of the finer points of surface supply diving and some of the more common pros and cons to this style of diving.
Reproduction of the Deane helmet, diving heritage.com.
Various forms of surface supply diving helmets and suits have been available for centuries with initial attempts starting in the 1400s. In 1820 the first successful surface-supply diving helmet was used by the Deane brothers. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the U.S. Navy started to develop its own helmet based on ones in use by the British Royal Navy. The Mark V helmet was used by the Navy from 1916 until the early 1980s. Primarily these surface supplied systems were used extensively for salvage operations where the need to go deep was often required.
With the interest and exposure to surface supply, many public safety teams have trained with their military counterparts, or with retired military divers to learn how to use these systems.
Surface Supply Diving allows you to make a dive without having to worry about a limited tank of air on your back. By having a constant supply of air, it allows a diver to function as long as the Dive Person in charge (DPIC) allows, or until they become too fatigued to continue. Each manufacturer’s system functions primarily the same way, with each diver having a regulator connected to either a full-face mask or a helmet. Backup air supplies are worn and utilized if the surface supply air malfunctions and the diver must return to the surface. Even though you are still tethered to the surface through your umbilical, these systems allow you to slim down your profile and operate around obstacles, or in tighter spaces.
Modern Kirby Morgan dive helmet from American Diving Supply.
There are several different types of surface supply systems, the more common ones can run two divers at the same time to a limited depth. While keeping divers down for extended periods without a break is not normally a recommended practice, these systems give you the flexibility and longer work times with limited manpower. Most surface supply systems are used in conjunction with a hard-wired intercom box that makes it much easier to communicate to the surface and to your partner. In the rare event that hard-wired coms fail, standard pull signals can still be used through your tether. Some of the more expensive systems can come with fully integrated lighting systems and additional sophisticated controls. Surface supply diving does not take the place of having a backup/safety diver, but it can allow a primary diver to enter the water quickly, while the 90 percent diver is still getting ready. All safety procedures must still be followed to handle any emergencies. These emergencies and surface supply air malfunctions should always be practiced as part of your training.
Chesterfield, Virginia Fire Department dive team setting up their equipment.
Surface supply can be one of the safest ways to perform your dives. With proper training and practice, surface supply diving can be much more efficient than traditional scuba diving. Divers can perform at a higher level and with more confidence knowing that the most dangerous part of diving, running out of air, is no longer going to be a problem. Dive commanders also now can focus on other aspects of the mission knowing that their divers will not face this issue. Diving with any type of helmet, or full-face mask keeps your airway dry at all times. If a diver were to have a medical event and go unconscious, having a dry airway will often allow for better outcomes than divers with wet airways. Having clear, hard-wired comms to the surface and to your partner, allows much more precise work and the ability to not get mixed messages during a more complicated mission. This type of encapsulated diving also keeps your diver safe from any hazardous water conditions. Using hard hats like the Kirby Morgan, offers some head protection from traumatic type injuries.
These systems can be much easier and more comfortable on the diver allowing them to get dressed faster and carry less weight. A modern surface supply can save each diver almost 60 pounds of equipment weight. This can lead to less injuries, less fatigue prior to entry and reduction in potential workman’s comp claims.
Interspiro's SSD setup ready to come off the truck.
Water emergencies can be some of the most stressful events that we face and an out of air emergency is the number one concern of any diver or DPIC. Surface supply takes away this event 99.9 percent of the time and allows a diver in trouble to relax and work through a problem, knowing they have enough air to do it.
There are not many cons to a surface supply setup. They can be more expensive to purchase and to service than traditional dive equipment and these costs are what often prevents most public safety programs from utilizing it. A basic two diver system control box alone can start at about $5000 to $10,000.
Having divers at the bottom for extended durations can be dangerous for their health. If they do not allow themselves to cycle out they can quickly become thermally stressed and dehydrated. Much like firefighters that don’t want to come out of the building, SOPs must be put in place to ensure that proper dive rotations are kept up and divers are given a chance to rehab and recycle.
Pool evolutions are always a good place to practice with new gear.
Not unlike any other diving situations, the Commercial Diving Standards are going to apply to many departments throughout the country. OSHA requires that whatever dive mode your team chooses to use, they must have the guidelines written down as to how it will work. Surface supply diving is no different. Exactly how your team will handle a surface supply dive must be spelled out and covered in policy. If your team does surface supply and standard scuba, then you would need SOPs for both situations. Only divers that have been trained to use surface supply should be allowed to use it. OSHA’s guidelines state that all divers must have training in any mission objective that they are expected to perform. All divers (primary, backup and safety) should all have the same qualifications, go to the same briefing and be able to perform the same skills in all situations. Air samples from your supplies (compressors, high pressure air banks or standard bottles) should be tested once per quarter to ensure that you are giving your divers the best non-contaminated air possible.
Fire divers waiting to make entry. (Chesterfield, Virginia Fire Department.)
The medical considerations for surface supply diving does not change from standard scuba. Medical pre-checks with each diver should be performed prior to the mission briefing. This includes full vital signs (blood pressure, heart rate, pulse ox, respiratory rates and at least a rapid neuro exam). Upon exiting the water, divers should be monitored for at least 10 minutes to eliminate any chance of Arterial Gas Embolism. During this 10-minute window, they can be debriefed, get full outgoing neuro checks and start the rehydration process.
Surface supply diving is not for every department. The equipment costs and maintenance need to be weighed against the potential for use and the missions that you perform. It is a great way to add some additional safety to your dives and remove the number one danger to a public safety diver. If your department can’t make it work currently, it still may be a good long-term goal for those that can budget for it or get grant assistance through your local or regional channels. Have a great spring and as always — Safe Diving!
Having a boat on site allows for another level of safety in case of an in-water emergency. (Chesterfield, Virginia Fire Department.)
Special thanks to Chesterfield, Virginia Fire Department and Capt. Jerry Pruden for their help and guidance with this article.