ARPP: Scientific diving to national standards

By Dr. Robert Millott

During the past three years the Aucilla River Prehistory Project (ARPP) has made over 1500 dives for a total bottom time in excess of 1780 hours. This has been accomplished with no diving accidents. The number of volunteer divers who participate in the project averages about 20 per field season, in addition to the regular staff. All of the volunteers are required to demonstrate competency as defined by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) and the University of Florida’s Diving Science & Safety Program (DSSP) standards. There is at least a sense that those who do dive on the project are competent in diving skills for the task at hand.

A great deal of the diving is performed in water with mild to strong currents and low visibility, using artificial lighting and surface supplied air. In addition, the dive sites are remote from medical support systems. Thus there is always a need to address the potential problems associated with this environment. Wide ranges of training and dive experience among volunteers from across the country who are new to such activities have suggested a need for extensive review of their skills development to minimize project risk.

The University of Florida attempts to control hazardous activities through the efforts of the Environmental Health & Safety (EH&S) office. The DSSP is a component of this office directed to oversee and manage all sub-aquatic activities for risk management purposes. This program is an active organizational member of the AAUS.

The AAUS originated in part to address diving activities in science and research, and to obtain an exclusion from the OSHA regulations 29 CFR 1910, Subpart T. This regulation placed major constraints and expenses on all diving activity. To this end, the AAUS provided statistics and guidelines to the government demonstrating that research diving could be conducted with a minimum of accidental injury.

The ARPP has an excellent accident free history of scientific diving activities. With the large number of divers (both volunteers and faculty/staff/students) and dives over the past 15 years, its progressive support and adherence to national standards for dive safety in scientific diving can be seen as a major contributing factor to this outstanding safety record.

The ARPP has supported and complied with the national safety standards as promoted by the AAUS. It has as its strong support dive group a larger number of volunteers than academicians. Divers coming from all over the US and beyond have proven capable and conscientious in assisting with the research.

The program has demonstrated an attention to details, planning and training that has resulted in extensive scientific diving with no dive-related injuries. The basis of the diver evaluation and requirements is the AAUS exemption from stringent OSHA rules governing commercial diving, which was based upon a history of sub-aquatic research under such constraints with little or no accidents resulting in diver injuries.

ARPP director Dr. S.David Webb, director of diving operations Joe Latvis, and field operations supervisor Bill Gifford have strongly encouraged and supported diver training and performance to insure risk management through attention to detail and careful extensive planning. The dive plans presented by the ARPP are comprehensive and address health and safety issues with great thoroughness. Generally, there are even “dress rehearsals” for potential problem responses (see “Lifeflight/ARPP medevac drill”), thus demonstrating an in-depth review and understanding of the significance of any problems that might occur in what is considered a “safe” activity conducted in a potentially hazardous site.

Editor's Note: Dr. Robert Millott is the University of Florida's Dive Safety Officer.