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Divers Institute of Technology

Established 1968 – Veteran Owned & Operated

A Diver’s Best Friend: The Dive Chamber Operator

Humans were not made to be underwater.

As if commercial divers didn’t have enough on their plates just trying to get the job done, they also have to be very careful about the physiological effects of being underwater.

Everything from nitrogen narcosis to fillings popping out represents a real threat to commercial divers.

However, there is one danger of being underwater that is constantly lurking in the shadows – the effects of pressure on gases in the bloodstream.

Decompression Sickness

You may have heard of the term “decompression sickness.”

Known in diving circles as “The Bends,” decompression sickness, or DCS, is a killer when not treated with total respect at all times.

Whenever a living creature ventures into the world below the surface, physiological changes take place as a result of the pressure changes of being underwater.

We all have gases such as oxygen and nitrogen in our bloodstream and the cells of our body.

However, as pressure increases, the volume of these gases absorbed into the liquids in our bodies also changes in accordance with Henry’s Law.

The law states that “the amount of dissolved gas in a liquid is proportional to its partial pressure above the liquid.”

In a nutshell, this means that the deeper you go underwater, the more pressure there is and therefore the more gases that are absorbed into your bloodstream. 

The Danger of DCS 

Provided that divers take care to make pressurization stops on their ascent back to the surface – so that the built-up gases can make their way out of the bloodstream – these gases will not do any harm.

The only danger is when insufficient decompression takes place and these gases are left in the bloodstream when a diver reaches the lower pressures of our atmosphere.

When this occurs, the nitrogen gas in the blood expands and causes decompression sickness.

The effects of DCS range from pain in the joints and muscles to, in the most severe cases, death.

But what about divers who need to spend long periods working at depth, where constant pressurization and depressurization could be dangerous?

Well, thankfully for these saturation divers, help is at hand in the form of the compression chamber.

Compression Chamber to the Rescue

The decompression chamber is known by a lot of different names. These include the DDC, deck decompression chamber, recompression chamber, hyperbaric chamber, and the saturation chamber.

Depending on its size, a decompression chamber is designed to hold anywhere between 2 and 8 divers, sometimes for weeks on end.

They are designed to allow for a constant internal pressure that can be much higher than surface pressure. 

This pressure can be altered to match the depth at which the divers are operating underwater.

Decompression chambers are usually located on the surface dive support ship, but in some instances will be a diving bell (which is pressurized by the water pressure around it) that is located at the worksite deep underwater.

For safety reasons, dive operators prefer the surface dive chamber.

But, with the pressure inside these chambers being a matter of life or death to those inside, who gets to operate these chambers?

Who is the Chamber Operator?

The chamber operator is an essential part of any commercial dive team that requires a dive chamber.

In fact, no operation can legally use a dive chamber without a fully qualified chamber operator onboard.

That’s how important they are.

A chamber operator is an individual who has been fully trained in operating dive chambers and the physiological effects of pressure on the body.

A Chamber Operator in the Real World

While it is not required that a chamber operator be a commercial diver, a good number of them are.

There are a number of very good reasons for this.

First, experienced commercial divers excel at keeping a cool head under pressure. In an emergency, the ability not to panic and to deal with problems in a systematic manner really does save lives.

An experienced professional diver also has extensive knowledge of the physiological effects of underwater work.

This ability to relate first-hand to the debilitating effects of conditions such as nitrogen narcosis allows the chamber operator to clearly understand what a diver is experiencing and how best to react.

Determining When a Diver Is Fit for Surface Life

In essence, a dive chamber operator’s role is to maintain the chamber and be on-hand to control the pressure inside the chamber in accordance with what’s required.

During a saturation dive job, the pressure will be kept at the dive site ambient pressure.

After the divers have finished their work, the chamber operator with steadily bring the pressure down so that the gases inside the diver’s bloodstream can dissipate.

Once these gases are down to a normal level, the divers will be free to leave the chamber and resume life on the surface with the rest of us. 

How to Become a Hyperbaric Chamber Operator

Becoming a hyperbaric chamber operator is an intensive process.

It requires a deep understanding of human physiology, the physics of being underwater, pressure systems, as well as the mechanics of the dive chamber itself.

If you are a commercial diver already and have advanced medical training (DMT), then you are already halfway there.

For more information on how to become a commercial diver or to undertake advanced medical training, you can contact The Divers Institute of Technology to ask about their commercial diving courses.

For dive chamber training, you can apply to a course such as the one offered by the Professional Dive Academy

Aran Davis, Writer for Water Welders

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