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April 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 38, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Death Due to Poor Gear Maintenance

are you more careful than this Virginia police department?

from the April, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

I have friends who religiously service all their gear after every dive trip, and others who just rinse it and put it away. Most have had some minor gear problems while diving, but never fatal ones. So I found the following events shocking. It's hard to imagine that a police department would be so lax in its dive equipment maintenance that it would lead to a diver's death. But it's also hard to imagine that someone as experienced as this diver would die under the circumstances described. - - Ben Davison

* * * * *

Two pieces of a police officer's diving equipment failed during a December dive team training exercise, leading to the drowning death of 41-year-old Timothy Schock in a lake in Greenbrier, VA. Adding to the tragedy, no boat was on hand at Oak Grove Lake Park to respond when Schock went diving and failed to surface. Nor were emergency responders standing by to help him the moment he went into distress, according to findings released by Police Chief Kelvin Wright.

Schock's troubles began when a button on his power inflator fell off, but he went underwater with no problems, and he could manually inflate or deflate the vest. Later, when he went back down with his buddy to continue training, the power inflator stopped working and the vest wouldn't hold air. Then, when he tried to release the weights from the vest by pulling on a ripcord, it didn't work, Wright said. In fact, in testing afterwards, the weight releases of the other 12 divers were tested and they all failed. "I can't explain why," Wright said.

On the second dive, Schock's buddy noticed Schock was having trouble ascending, and that his BC was not filling with air. So his buddy inflated his own vest to float to the surface with Schock. When they surfaced, Schock removed his face mask and inexplicably told his partner he was out of air, even though his tank still had enough air in it "to sustain him throughout the training exercise," said police spokeswoman Kelly O'Sullivan.

As Schock held onto his buddy, they alerted other officers around the lake that they were having problems. The partner tried to blow air into Schock's vest, without success, and offered his regulator. Schock took a single breath and then pushed it away. When his partner told Schock to release his weights, he said, "I can't." Both Schock and his buddy decided to swim to shore, and Schock held onto his buddy's neck and scuba tank. Schock's buddy told him to loosen his grip because he was choking him. When Schock did, he let go completely and slipped underwater. Another rescue diver brought Schock to the surface a short time later and began CPR until emergency crews arrived.


Wright had one of his officers test
a weight-release system on one
of the team's BCs, but the officer
could not release the weights.

Wright said the age, wear and lack of proper maintenance caused the power inflator to fail. The officers maintained their own gear. Schock had been wearing a Zeagle SR BC. Weights are stored in the pockets. When a diver pulls a red handle on the BC attached to a thin, plastic cord threaded through nylon loops, the bottom of the weight pockets open, dropping the weights. Apparently, Schock was storing weights in the correct pockets on his diving vest.

Dennis Bulin, president of Florida-based Zeagle Systems has yet to see the equipment, but he said he wants to inspect it to understand what happened. "We've sold thousands and thousands of these, and we've not had these kinds of problems. If you take care of your gear and have it inspected, you'll lower your risks of anything like this ever happening."

Bulin's comment hit on a key element of Wright's reforms in light of Schock's death: maintenance. Under old policies, it was left to police officers to maintain their own equipment, with the dive team's equipment officer visually inspecting it on a quarterly basis and the team's commander inspecting it annually. Last year, equipment was inspected only three times during the year because of "workload requirements." Officers no longer will be allowed to store equipment in their vehicles or in the department's dive truck for long periods, as they had been doing. The police department will buy all new equipment and maintain it on a regular schedule by a certified technician. They will incorporate a "buddy check" of all equipment worn by a diver prior to submerging. If something isn't working properly, the officer will not be allowed to dive.

Divers Alert Network did an 11-year study that looked at 346 cases in the United States and Canada where a specific cause could be cited. Equipment was at fault in 15 percent of the cases. "Equipment was really a very small percentage, and most of the time it was the ability of the diver to handle the equipment error (rather) than just the pure failure," said Petar Denoble, co-author of the study. "I'm not trying to put all the blame on the divers. We are monitoring for possible equipment failures because we want manufacturers to know about... design errors to improve it."

Wright has said the age, wear and lack of proper maintenance caused Schock's power inflator to fail. The faulty power inflator was not manufactured by Zeagle, and it wasn't clear who made the piece because there was no label on it. The team's buoyancy compensators were bought in 2002, and Schock was wearing more than 40 pounds of weights. He was wearing a drysuit, which neither he nor his buddy tried to inflate.

Wright said he had one of his officers test a weight-release system on one of the team's buoyancy compensators after Schock's death, and the officer could not release the weights. Wright then reached over and tried to pull the cord on his officer's vest himself. "I had difficulty doing it," he said. "It required a great deal of effort."

Some in the dive community suggested silt or muck might have gummed up the weight-release system, or that other equipment Schock was wearing obstructed his ability to engage the system. However, Wright said both have been ruled out.

Bulin of Zeagle said diving equipment can reliably last for years when properly serviced. "It is a very simple system," Bulin said of the weights. "Again, even simple systems have to be maintained. They have to be put together right. Maybe it wasn't put together right. Maybe they modified it. We don't know."

(Note from Ben: We have reported many times on incidents where divers wearing weights integrated into their BCs have been unable to release them. It's not a new or unknown problem.)

- - Compiled from articles by Veronica Gonzalez in the Virginian-Pilot

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