The “Cutting” Question
So, you’re on a mission in limited visibility water and can barely see your gauges to check your air status. Your team has been in the water for over four hours looking for what you have just found. As you collect data for the report you will soon be writing, you feel that ever annoying yet recognizable tug somewhere on your SCUBA system. It does not take long for you to realize that you have become entangled with multiple strands of both mono filament fishing line and what appears to be lines that your one team has introduced to the scene.
Being the superbly trained diver that you are, you calmly look at your gauge. “No problem, plenty of air”, you think to yourself. You stop and think in order to resolve your own problem as you have been trained. You reach for your cutting instrument, your handy dandy dive knife with its serrated edge and line cutter, cool! With the precision of Daniel Boone himself, you begin to hack your way out of your predicament.
As you begin the task of cutting your way out, you say to yourself, “Self, this is not as easy as it is supposed to be.” Your breathing begins to increase as your workload rises and anxiety sets in. You have already sent line signals to your team above that there is a problem and help is on the way.
As they arrive they see glimpses of what appears to be a Tasmanian devil spinning and slashing at the enemy with blade in hand. Realizing that it would not be good to approach from the front, you are finally calmed when your buddy touches you on the shoulder and gives you the OK sign. You relax as you feel what seemed like endless miles of line letting loose. What had taken you so much energy and time to attempt with a knife, your buddy had accomplished in seconds with his $8.00 pair of EMT shears.
Right about now you have drawn the line in the sand and jumped on one side of it or the other. “What an idiot”, you proclaim! “A knife works just fine in the hands of a competent diver.” I agree. However, let me point out some things that may change your mind.
We have all heard the term “Muscle Memory” before, yes? I discovered how prevalent this is quite by accident in recent training with my team. While training for what we call stress inoculation, we built what amounts to be a cage constructed of PVC that is 10 feet long and four feet wide and tall. With safety divers on both sides and in shallow water so the diver can stand up, the training diver enters the cage that is filled with crossed lines of various sizes to ensure beyond any doubt, that you will get tangled.
The drill allows you to practice the skills of using your cutting tools in a controlled and safe environment. It teaches you patience, to recognize where your problem is, to remain calm and not to frantically spin around. Divers are allowed to enter the cage the first time and are encouraged to solve their problems without even using a tool. After they are comfortable, they re-enter the cage with mask blacked out to simulate what most of us really dive in.
I was fascinated by what I saw. From the most experienced divers, to the new boot on the team, cutting the lines with a knife presented some interesting challenges. I could not for the life of me figure out why divers with thousands of dives and certifications galore were having similar problems as the folks with less than a hundred dives. Then it hit me.
How often throughout our lives have we used dive knives to cut things with vs. the thousands of things we have cut with scissors? Muscle Memory! Since we were kids, we have cut everything from strings and ropes to aluminum, pennies and your brother’s favorite pajamas. Sorry mom! It should not surprise each of us to hear that it is easier to do.
Prove it for yourself. Grab a small rope and try it with your team members, but don’t tell them what you are doing. Observe. What you will see is that everybody uses the knife in a different way; some with more success than others. With the scissors, everybody will cut the rope and look at you as if to ask, “What’s the big deal?”
I have watched as divers have almost cut themselves, their buddies, their air hoses, their own safety lines, and anything else they can grab as they pass through the entanglement cage. Where it takes most experienced divers 2-3 minutes to clear themselves with a knife, the same diver can do it in half of that with scissors and with much less thrashing about and near misses. Don’t take my word for it, try it yourself. You don’t even need to be in the water.
Now for those of you who are asking yourself who is this pacifist and how dare he suggest we give up our knives. Slow your role cowboy, I never suggested you give up your knives. Heaven forbid you give up that custom 10” titanium Spartan short sword you bought on sale at the local swap meet. No, you may still need that for prying yourself out of some other predicament you get yourself into. I am certain that is what most divers use knives for anyway!
I am merely suggesting that scissors, EMT shears, have proven to be much more efficient at cutting lines than knives. I suggest that all Public Safety Divers carry both and practice with both. If you already do, then kudos to you! By doing so, you become a stronger asset to yourself and your team mates. I have implemented this with my basic students in the private sector as well. It just makes good sense!
Tim Morin is an ERDI instructor and a member of the Riverside County Sheriffs department.