Struggle to keep divers' code afloat
Three people have died while scuba diving this year. Teh Joo Lin and Kimberly Spykerman look at the state of the leisure diving industry and its practices
FOR three years, a 55-page code of practice for the leisure diving industry here has been gathering moss.
It was an attempt by the Singapore Underwater Federation (SUF) to make sure dive instructors abide by certain guidelines when they take their clients out to sea.
But even the grouping formed in 1973 to promote safe diving and other underwater activities, has been floundering.
It has not held an annual general meeting since 2006. In the following years it has received no funding from the Singapore Sports Council as the council's spokesman said its plans were "not detailed enough for proper assessment".
Its last bulletin to members was for an event in June 2007. Its listed number is no longer in use. Its membership has sunk from 60 to just five or so. It has no actual office-bearers now five of the seven quit before their term ended in 2007.
The last president, Mr Stephen Beng, and his deputy Mr Gideon Liew, are left to keep the federation afloat.
Given the swell in the number of people taking to underwater sports, the moribund state of the industry's governing body is cause for concern. By industry estimates there are 30 dive shops providing instruction and organising trips to popular dive spots in Malaysia and elsewhere and 200 instructors. About 10,000 people go on diving trips every year.
Since 2000. at least 10 people have died while diving including three so far this year. These are numbers that concern interim SUF president Mr Beng. "We need to make a point of zero tolerance for dive fatalities," he said.
Different people have different takes on what is causing the federation to sink but the push to adopt the code of practice appears to have been a major sticking point.
Dive operators believe they would drown from the cost of implementing it.
The code which raises points about safety professionalism and service lays down minimum industry standards. Among other things, it calls on dive operators to conduct extensive reviews of inactive divers before allowing them back underwater; arrange for doctors to be on standby over radio or phone when diving at remote locations; and routinely test their first-aid equipment.
The SUF's former honorary secretary, Mr Ricky Koh, said: "To completely abide by the code over heads would go up as there would be a minimum standard when it comes to equipment. Given a choice who would want to raise costs?"
The code lays down recommendations. No penalties are listed for breaches but in theory the federation can discipline members who break the code.
Mr George Lee, the former sports officer of the SUF who has been in the industry for 32 years, said members would have been obliged to implement the recommendations or face censure. But non-members could get away with ignoring the code because the grouping has no power to compel membership.
"If you are a member of the SUF, basically you are putting a rope around your neck," said Mr Lee. "If anyone complains about you, SUF will take action against you based on the code. But non-SUF members will get off scot free. So who's going to use it first?"
Dive operators here are already certified by international training agencies such as the Professional Association for Diving Instructors (Padi), which is based in the United States with regional offices worldwide.
A Padi spokesman said its regional managers conduct regular training for Padi-certified dive centres among other quality control measures. Members have to adhere to the Padi Standards Compliance Agreement which specifies training rules such as the ratio of instructor to students.
The spokesman said: "When compliance is not gained, or the matter is of a serious safety issue, the member may be required to retrain, or the member's membership in Padi may be terminated.
But a local code of practice can supplement the guidelines of various international training bodies said its proponents.
International guidelines do not take into account a country's laws said Mr William Ong, the SUF's former national diving officer. "The guidelines are non-specific to any geographical location. So even if you follow Padi's standards Padi cannot help defend you if you have breached any local laws. The code will then act as a safeguard for dive operators here so that they operate correctly."
Mr Beng, who owns his own dive outfit, hopes government agencies like the National Water Safety Council can help the SUF get back on its feet.
Dr Teo Ho Pin, who heads the council, said he was aware of the uphill task the SUF faces because "not all (dive) operators would like to join it".
"We would like to work with the federation and come up with something that all operators can abide by," he said adding that the council was reviewing the SUF's code of practice.
In Australia, the Maritime Union of Australia recently called for strict government regulation of the industry after a fatal scuba diving accident.
After the death of a 58-year-old American diver due to a "pre-existing medical problem", the union's spokesman said it was time for the diving industry the government and unions to develop professional training and safety standards.
To some dive operators here, practices that should be imposed include compulsory dive insurance, medical check-ups before divers can go underwater regular equipment maintenance and overhaul and the use of automated external defibrillators, which can restart stopped hearts.
Doctors The Straits Times spoke to go further, saying that the pre dive medical assessment is particularly important.
Dr Soh Chai Rick, director of the hyperbaric and diving medicine centre at the Singapore General
Hospital, said: "Each condition is potentially problematic. Only a dive physician with careful assessment can tell you if it's safe."
Dr Gregory Chan, a visiting consultant at the centre, felt it was a good idea for operators to have an emergency response plan which includes mapping out the nearest hospitals and hyperbaric chambers, as many popular dive spots are in remote areas.
Dive operators interviewed all maintain that they take safety seriously. But they also have stories of those who do not.
Waikiki's managing director John Lee recalled how he had to lend his oxygen tank to another operator who needed to treat a casualty on board the boat they were sharing.
The other operator's oxygen tank was empty, he said.
"If there are regulations, it's actually good. Currently it's self regulatory. So where's the benchmark?"
Some operators even use dive equipment that had seen better days, he said.
Mr Ong agreed that a code would be useful. "In court, the code could be used in judgments as there is no other means of measuring if an operator behaved responsibly."
As Mr George Lee sees it, the problem is that membership in the SUF is voluntary. While people may laud the setting of standards. they baulk at having to pay the price of sticking to a code when non-members can get away with cutting corners.
Said Mr Beng: "The SUF needs empowerment. We've already got the documents in place but there's no compulsory membership.
Short of that, carrots -not just the stick- are what may draw operators back to the fold.
Mr John Lee said: "Members need some kind of support when they join the federation, rather than being slapped with the code. As a member, you must enjoy certain benefits, then it'll balance out the code."