USS Oriskany

Tourism officials encourage visitors to explore the world’s largest artificial reef—the USS Oriskany.

But tourism officials fail to warn scuba divers that in the worst-case scenario, no hyperbaric facility exists from Pensacola to Jacksonville to treat decompression sickness or the bends, which can be life-threatening.

Local diver, Steve Wells, died Nov. 25 because he allegedly failed to receive treatment in time for the bends, sparking renewed interest in diver safety along the Northwest Florida Gulf Coast. An autopsy is still being conducted to determine the cause of death.

It’s why the Escambia County Marine Advisory Committee held a special meeting Tuesday to discuss diving safety in front of a packed meeting room filled with divers, diving shop and boat charter owners, and medical experts in diving accidents. The committee plans to meet again Monday, Feb. 13 to approve steps that would improve the safety of divers who visit Pensacola from all over the world.

“The lack of a chamber is certainly an issue,” said Kerry Freeland, who owns Dive Pros and is a Marine Advisory Committee member. “If we had one here it would be advantageous.”

Today, divers must go to Springhill Medical Center in Mobile, Ala., or the South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta, Ga., to be treated by hyperbaric oxygen therapy in a recompression chamber.

Baptist Hospital used to treat divers, but after two years it stopped using its hyperbaric chamber for diving emergencies and only uses it for wound care, such as gas gangrene, necrotizing infections, diabetic ulcers, carbon monoxide poisoning, chronic wounds and a variety of other conditions. In fact, the only hospitals left in Florida that provide service to divers are all located in South Florida — Fort Myers, West Palm Beach, Miami and Key Largo.

Divers in local waters must make it to Springhill Medical Center’s Wound Care and Hyperbaric Treatment Program that Julio Garcia oversees. Garcia said he treats about 12 to 15 divers from Northwest Florida yearly.

“No one gives a rat’s butt about recruiting tourist dollars and then not having the equipment to treat them,” Garcia said strongly. “This really infuriates me. It takes a fatality. It shouldn’t take this.”

A stand-alone hyperbaric chamber also exists at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. It only serves the military and their dependents. However, Dr. Anne Roberts said at the Diving Safety special meeting that the Department of Defense does allow the Navy hyperbaric chamber to be used to stabilize civilian divers who present life-threatening symptoms from the bends before transferring them to a non-military hospital to receive the remainder of their treatment.

“If it is a significant enough life threatening illness from a diving injury, I will treat them,” Roberts said.

The number one thing that should be done for any diver in distress is to call the Divers Alert Network hotline at Duke University at 919-684-9111. The hotline is manned 24/7 365. DAN is the diving industry’s largest association dedicated to scuba diving safety.

Beyond that diving experts suggested a number of solutions to improve treatment of the bends, including convincing hospital executives, who have active hyperbaric chambers, to create a schedule that rotates the responsibility of handling emergencies.

More unlikely recommendations included having lawmakers mandate hospitals treat divers if they have that ability. Others said the diving community should raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to establish an independent hyperbaric chamber and train a pool of physicians and medical personnel needed to staff it.

“Hopefully, one day we’ll get an epiphany and know how to handle it all,” Freeland said.

One thing that did seem certain was the updating of a protocol written by Merrick VanLandingham in 2005 on how to handle life threatening diving conditions. It would be circulated with all the parties typically involved in treatment, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, EMS, Search and Rescue, law enforcement, 9-1-1 operators, Florida Fish and Wildlife, hospitals across the region, and the Northwest diving community among other groups and agencies.

VanLandingham, who has taught diving for more than two decades and sits on the Escambia County Marine Advisory Committee, said the protocol must be widely and constantly distributed because of turnover in key positions.

“Things have changed since then,” VanLandingham said. “We’ve got new doctors, new people answering 9-1-1. You need to be able to call them and get treatment as quickly as possible.”

No matter what, the Divers Safety meeting did spur a consensus on holding regular diving safety lessons for both novice and professional divers.

DAN Medical Director Jim Chimiak, who listened to the Escambia County Divers Safety meeting over the phone, also weighed in. Chimiak said the key to safety is speed.

“They need to get to a chamber quickly,” he said. “They must move along through an ER evaluation. They cannot sit around for two to three hours. The whole idea is to facilitate it and move it along.”

Brian Clark, who does a lot of deep diving off Pensacola, just went through decompression treatment in June, getting an airlift to a hyperbaric chamber. He emphasized that divers must assume the worst before each dive and have a detailed safety plan in case an emergency pops up.

“We need to take responsibility for our own actions,” he said at the Diver Safety meeting. “What other sport puts you hours from medical care? This is an extreme sport, and you’re taking your life into your own hands. You’re on the moon. So you better have a plan, and you better review what you will do in an emergency.”

Springhill’s Garcia said he hopes Pensacola and the rest of the Northwest Florida will one day have its own hyperbaric chamber again to treat divers. The emerald green Gulf waters have become a hotspot for diving since the 911-foot “Mighty O” was sunk 24 miles southeast of the Pensacola Pass. Plus, there are more than 100 other sunken vessels, military tanks, planes and even demolished bridges.

“It is complete BS that hospitals will treat wounds but not diving injuries,” Garcia said. “Is it possible? Damn straight it is, but no one cares.”


In case of a diving emergency, call:
The 24-hour Divers Alert Network (DAN) Emergency Hotline at 919-684-9111.


Scuba Diving Fast Facts

•Recreational scuba diving and snorkeling contribute about $11 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product and generates about $904.4 million to the Florida economy each year.
•More than 4,200 chartered dive trips are taken annually to the artificial reef/aircraft carrier USS Oriskany that rests south of Pensacola, carrying divers from all over the world.
•Annual revenue generated from visitors traveling to Escambia and Baldwin counties to dive to the Oriskany alone is estimated at $2.2 million with an economic impact of $3.6 million.
•Oriskany dive activities led to the creation of 67 jobs, and the generation of $1.4 million in total income in Escambia and Baldwin counties.
Source: The Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) and University of West Florida Haas Center for Business Research (2007)


By Duwayne Escobedo