How can rebreather diving be made safer? That was the question at the core of the numerous presentations and discussions at Rebreather Forum 3 (RF3) held in Orlando, Florida, this May.
The last forum, Rebreather Forum 2.0, which I organized with rebreather builder Tracy Robinette, was held 16 years earlier in 1996, at a time when rebreathers were just being introduced to the sport diving market.
In his opening remarks, PADI CEO, Drew Richardson, proposed that the number one goal of RF3 was contributing to rebreather diving safety and reducing incidents.
The issue is of critical importance today when manufacturers like Poseidon Diving Systems Ltd. and Hollis Inc., in conjunction with PADI and other training agencies, are now actively promoting rebreathers for use by recreational divers, which is a source of some controversy. Until recently, rebreather use was limited primarily to tech divers because of their complexity, operational requirements and cost. The concern is that rebreathers may be too complex and time consuming for a typical open water diver who is still mastering their basic diving skills.
A matter of protocol
However, PADI has developed a simplified diving protocol using rebreathers designed specifically for recreational use, which it believes will prove efficacious.
Though no one knows the actual risks, there have been more than 200 reported rebreather fatalities worldwide since 1998, which have averaged approximately ten fatalities per year prior to 2005 and about 20 per year since. To put these numbers in perspective, on average there are about 100-120 scuba diving fatalities annually in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Europe combined, which represents the majority of the worldwide market. Given that there are millions of open-circuit divers compared to, at most, tens of thousands of rebreather divers, the fatality rate for rebreather diving is evidently much higher than its open-circuit counterpart, as industry-insiders are all too well aware.
During one of the opening sessions, Dr Andrew Fock, head of hyperbaric medicine at The Albert Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, asked for a show of hands from the audience: “How many people in this room believe that the current rebreather safety record is acceptable?”
No one raised a hand.
Concieved centuries ago
First conceived in the 17th century by Giovanni Borelli, closed-circuit rebreathers (CCR) remained an elusive invention until the advent of galvanic oxygen sensors in the early 1960s made their construction possible. Like simple, non-electronic oxygen rebreathers before them, the technology was primarily limited to military divers until the late 1980s when pioneers like Dr Bill Stone, Olivier Isler, Stuart Clough and Rob Palmer began experimenting with rebreathers for cave exploration, just as technical diving was emerging.
Though the early tech community immediately seized upon their potential for extending bottom times and optimizing decompression, it took until the late 1990s for the first production units like the Cis-Lunar Mk-IV, Ambient Pressure Diving’s Inspiration and the KISS Classic to become available.
Fastest growing segment
Today, rebreather diving represents one of the fastest growing areas of sport diving. Poseidon reported at the Forum that they sold more of their recreational Mk-VI rebreathers in the last four and half months than in the prior two and half years, and PADI is certifying new recreational rebreather instructors to meet the demand. In certain countries, such as the United Kingdom, which is regarded as rebreather “ground zero”, it’s considered “normal” that everyone on a dive boat is diving a rebreather.
Industry insiders estimate there are as many as 10,000 to 15,000 active rebreather divers worldwide, and there are more than a dozen rebreather manufacturers.
At one of the forum sessions, the three oldest technical training agencies, ANDI, IANTD and TDI, ...
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