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Some sounding alarm on limited emergency services for Florida divers

Some sounding alarm on limited emergency services for Florida divers

Some people are sounding the alarm on the lack of emergency services for Northwest Florida’s diving community.

Last week, WEAR told you about a diver that died, likely because he couldn't get to something called a hyperbaric chamber in time.

He was taken to Springhill Medical Center in Mobile. Julio Garcia, director of the Hyperbaric Care Center at Springhill has long feared a tragedy like that one.

Garcia said their center treats about 12 to 15 divers a year, a vast majority come from Northwest Florida.

“We worry about the time to treatment,” Garcia said, referring to time and distance. “Currently our average time to treatment from time of injury is anywhere from six to nine hours, that's incredibly long and can result in an unfortunate situation.”

The hyperbaric chamber can be used to treat a variety of conditions, from wounds to carbon monoxide poisoning. In the case of divers, it is used to treat decompression sickness, a condition that can develop if they come up too quickly from deep dives.

Decompression sickness is extremely rare, but it is also painful and can be deadly.

“They will have difficulty with their ability to think, walk, breathe. It could stop their heart,” Garcia explained.

John Peters, head of the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society in North Palm Beach, says people are having to travel farther and farther for treatment because Florida hospitals have gradually stopped offering 24-hour emergency use of their hyperbaric chambers.

Peters said UHMS did a survey of hospital hyperbaric programs in the U.S. They reached out to about 750 programs and about half responded. They found that only about 12 percent of hospitals in the U.S. that have hyperbaric facilities offer 24-hour emergency service.

Peters said that percentage is down from 90 percent from the early 90s. While those numbers are reflective of a national survey, he said Florida’s hospitals follow the trend.

“For example, we've lost Panama City, Tallahassee, Jacksonville,” Peters said. “Orlando came offline, they plan to come back online, but I think they’re still currently offline. [There’s] nothing in Tampa. I think the closest [Florida hospital] now is West Palm Beach.”

The Divers Alert Network also pointed to facilities in Alabama (Springhill Medical Center) and another in Georgia that helps cover Northwest Florida.

Peters believes the trend is driven by hospital economics. Emergency hyperbaric care requires more staff and services and now the situation puts more burden on the diver.

“It would be wonderful if facilities offered the service,” Peters said. “But the fact that they're not offering that service, the individual that partakes in the activity needs to pay attention.”

Garcia says he has long been reaching out to Florida and Alabama lawmakers and community leaders to address the issue, labeling it a public safety concern. However, he says his concerns have gone mostly ignored.

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