Successfully Confronting “Because That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It” in the World of Coast Guard Rescue Swimming

By Rob Simpson, MTI Contributor

Two examples…one micro (unit impact); one macro (service impact).

Micro – Scuba Bottle Fill Machine

I was stationed at a small aviation unit up in Alaska. There were only 7 guys in the Rescue Swimmer Shop, and to say that we were busy is like calling the Sun “big.” We were strapped. The operational tempo was super high. It was all that we could do to keep the flight schedule staffed and the maintenance completed. One of our responsibilities was to inspect, maintain, and fill the emergency egress bottles that aircrews would wear on every flight. These bottles were part of the standard harness configuration. In the event of a worst-case scenario, they would give the aircrew a chance to swim out of a helo that landed in the water and started to sink.

Pretty important.

To keep these things ready to go, we had to use an industrial air-filling machine to keep a fleet of full-sized scuba bottles filled. This machine would generate pressure up to 3000 psi, and then we would fill our scuba bottles to service the smaller, individual bottles. 

Here’s where it gets interesting…the machine looked like it was from the 1930s. The compressor was roughly welded onto angle irons that were kissed with oxidation. It groaned and coughed itself to life when we needed to use it. To make things even more sketchy, there wasn’t an explosion-safe compartment to put the scuba bottles in when we filled them. It was common practice to set the bottle next to the machine, unrestrained. We would draw straws to see who had to fill the bottles and laughed about how it would kill us all one day. 

Essentially we were playing roulette with high-pressure missile hazards. When new guys would show up, they’d ask how to fill the scuba bottles, we’d show them, and they’d scratch their heads and ask “Why did we do it that way? “ Our answer was… “That’s how we’ve always done it.” 

Thankfully, while I was stationed there, a very sharp guy got orders to come up, and he was (and still is) very mechanically inclined. He took one look at the setup and lost his mind. He basically told us to stop using that thing until we figured out a new system. Lucky for us, he was part of an effort at his last unit to replace the air-filling station. He knew what he was talking about. Eventually, if we didn’t make a change, we were going to launch a scuba bottle through a bulkhead.

Thanks to our new teammate,a few months later the air station invested in a state-of-the-art air-filling machine, complete with a fancy blue paint job and explosive-safe compartment to fill our bottles. If it hadn’t been for my teammate’s fortitude to call us out on “it’s the ways we’ve always done it,” someone could have lost their life.

Macro – How To Approach and Handle Survivors in the Water

I served at a training command near the end of my career. It’s one of those spots you get unofficially screened for, and you get there based on reputation and performance. This was a team of professionals who were in the business of asking “Why?” We would travel to audit training programs, testing to see if the curriculum objectives would benefit operational Rescue Swimmers. We would take input from the Fleet to test procedural change suggestions and gear to see if we could implement changes that would help the end users do their jobs safer and more efficiently.

One of the standard gripes, since the inception of the Coast Guard’s Rescue Swimmer program, was the “escapes and releases.” These were basic methods that were taught to Rescue Swimmers from the very first week at the Schoolhouse and were meant to be implemented operationally. These techniques were our fundamentals. These were ways to approach and handle different survivors in the maritime environment. During our initial training, these procedures were a set of “rules” that the student had to play by in the training environment. Deviations during evaluated events resulted in failures. This all makes sense in the controlled training scenario.

On the flip side, when implemented operationally, these procedures seemed far-fetched and fictional in the open ocean. There were more stories of Swimmers resulting in less measured “procedures” to gain control of panicked survivors. I’m sure you can read between the lines there. Don’t get me wrong, they served a purpose and laid the foundation for how we interacted with survivors. That being said, anyone who used these techniques under a helo, in a drysuit, would quickly realize the training gap.…and we’d ask…”Why do we keep using these things when they don’t make sense in the real world?”

The answer was “Because that’s how we’ve always done them.”

Here’s where it gets interesting. My Chief at the training command was a jiu-jitsu practitioner. He was a true martial artist. On the white board in his office, he scrawled a quote from Musashi’s “Book of Five Rings” that mentioned how “fluidity is the way to life.” He walked the walk. 

My Chief decided to look into the origin of these procedures, and why our community was beholden to them. It didn’t sit well with him that there were better ways to gain control of someone in the water using techniques that work on the mat. As it turned out, the procedures we were using were relics from the 1950s. Since they were created, no one had taken the initiative to question or improve on them. Everyone just submitted to the answer “That’s just the way we’ve always done it.”

After a ton of research, testing, tweaking, evaluation, and aggressive word-smithing, my Chief created new protocols that ultimately exposed the previous methods as obsolete. Using real grappling techniques that work on land and in the water, he created a system-based approach that was easy to teach, evaluate, and replicate. We are talking Fleet-wide impact. Big picture change. Of course, we all helped in various phases of the creation and implementation of the new system, but the concept was researched and designed by my Chief at the time. As things progressed, other agencies and organizations saw what we were implementing as an organization, so we shared it with them as well. 

The ripples of asking “why?” and circumnavigating the canned “it’s how we’ve always done it” made an entire organization better at doing its job, and reached the desks of policymakers of other adjacent rescue organizations.

Take Aways

When faced with the dogmatic “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” response,  the challenge is twofold:

  1. Keep the Ego in Check

It can be immeasurably hard to have someone question a policy or procedure that you may hold near and dear.  Keeping the professional or personal ego in check is a critical factor in these instances. If you’re defending the standard, reference resources that provide support. If your standard is ironclad, there will be amplifying information that will back it up. Recognize and resist the lazy urge to fall back on an answer that is so easy to rely on. It takes little effort to shrug and say “That’s how we’ve always done it.”

  1. Recognize an opportunity for improvement

The other half of the equation is to remain vigilant in your own right.  Ask “Why?” Asking a question is not a sign of disrespect. This is something I still work at, as I’ve been bred to respect authority from an early age. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but the times I have spoken up have almost always exposed a topic worth digging deeper into. Asking questions will only help you understand the subject matter in a more meaningful way. A good leader, mentor or teammate will see your question as a chance to break down the subject matter into a more digestible format. If there is an opportunity for improvement or refinement, that same good leader, mentor or teammate will recognize the situation and dig into the “Why?” question alongside you.

Ego and complacency are barriers to excellence. Recognize these moments as opportunities to review the standard. Keep your perspective open to the possibility of implementing change that will lead to innovation.


In my experience, all high-performing teams ask the hard questions.

That’s why they are so damn good.

Rob Simpson is a husband, father and retired USCG Aviation Survival Technician.

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