“Without standards, I would have had to close down”

How the Austrian-British diving expert Martin Denison discovered standardisation, thereby rescued his company and, almost as a by-product, raised diving safety world-wide.

From Austria to the whole wide world

Four underwater divers.

For once, this is neither a story about Austrian music or painting nor the story of the Austrian diving pioneer Hans Hass.

It is the simple story of a standard developed in Austria that spread to the whole wide world in just a few years. Starting in the clear lakes of Salzkammergut, it now makes diving safer and worry-free throughout the world

How did it all start?

As usual in standardisation, a specific requirement and a concrete necessity stood at the beginning.

And, as Plato already new, necessity is the mother of invention as well as the mother of any standard.

Martin Denison, Austrian diving expert with British roots, realised that in the mid-1990s. Teaching at the Vienna University Sports Institute, he was responsible for training diving instructors within the Austrian Diving Federation.

In 1994, he started up his own business and trained instructors in line with the system of the US-based Scuba Schools International (SSI).

A new Sports Act

Martin Denison
Martin Denison

Then, in the run-up to Austria’s accession to the EU in 1995, a new Sports Act was adopted in Upper Austria, which severely threatened his work.

Denison: “The certificates that we issued would have been invalid after the Act’s entry into force. Training teachers or instructors who are not allowed to work because their qualifications are not recognised makes as little sense as producing nuts and bolts that do not match.”

What now?

To solve this problem, the idea was born to create a standard, a special service standard. At that time, the theme of services in standardisation was intensively discussed for the first time — at the national level as well as at the European and international level.

Reflections were made on transferring the system of voluntary standardisation that had proved well for products for many decades to the field of services — not least to make the European market more transparent or even open it up.

In fact, the area of scuba training and related services turned into one of the (first) great success stories of services standardisation.

The rest is not history, but current practice


The idea of developing standards came true very quickly in Austria of all countries, which is not really a centre of diving.

Denison: “We talked with Dipl.-Ing. Dr. Peter Jonas who was the committee manager in charge at the Austrian Standards Institute at that time and reflected on the stakeholders involved and how to motivate them to participate. All of a sudden, people gathered around a table who would normally cross the street to avoid meeting each other.

However, the work gained momentum and the draft of the first diving standard — ÖNORM S 4260 ‘Services of leisure industry — Safety-related minimum requirements for entry level training for scuba diving’ — already became available in the summer of 1997.

Five divers.

From there, it was only a relatively short way to further documents for this sector as well as to European and directly on to international standardisation.

“Around 70% of the specifications that we developed in Austria are also contained in today’s European and International standards,” explains Denison and adds: “That was also significantly influenced by the development of this sector, which evolved from a sport traditionally organised in federations into an industry with numerous commercial service providers.”

World-wide need for regulations

The European activities demonstrated the enormous need for harmonising diverging requirements — be it on the part of the federations or on the part of private-sector service providers. Around 35 representatives from 17 states, including Northern European countries, made active contributions.

In particular, Norway attached great importance to consumer protection provisions that were also included in the standards, as Denison reports. This view is also shared by the diving expert because those who register for a diving course enter into a contract with an instructor or school — and the “students” should have accurate information on what the “instructor” or “school” offers or has to offer.

The relevant standards lay the foundation, and certification in line with them ensures that the quality required is fully implemented. Nowadays, diving courses and dives are very often booked via the internet world-wide already before people go on a holiday. The providers should inform the customers on what they get for their money as well as on the standards applied. Denison: “That is an enormous competitive advantage that should be exploited.”

Standards have become indispensible


The world-wide acceptance of this standards series is an important success of an idea originally limited to Austria alone. For example, Egypt and Greece — two destinations popular among divers — only license scuba schools or diving centres if they are certified according to the relevant International or European standards. An Austrian entrepreneur initiated them and brought them to the international level with the help of other market partners and the support of the Austrian Standards Institute.

Martin Denison is truly pleased: “We made a small step in Austria and thereby succeeded in raising safety world-wide.”

By now, he reports, many national federations and all major commercial operators are already certified according to these standards, and all of them had to make improvements:

“Today, that is the recognised standard throughout the diving world.”

As Denison stresses, his initiative and commitment paid off in many respects. When he is asked for the price he had to pay for participating in standardisation, he cites three things:

“My work, my time and my travels.”

And he immediately adds another question: What would it have cost me not to take part?

“My company and my livelihood. Without standards, I would have had to close down.”

With the help of the diving standards and certification, he was able to prove his competence and the standard of training he offers his customers also in compliance with the new Sports Act.

Can standards be a solution for me?

Which experiences and findings would he like to share with others — in particular with small and medium-sized companies?

“You should first ask whether a standard can be a solution for you or for your company. If the answer is yes, you should talk with the Austrian Standards Institute and propose a new standardisation project. Such a talk does not cost anything and participation in standardisation is also free of charge in Austria. You only have to bear your own travel expenses and time expenditure. In my case, that was really worthwhile.”

To conclude, Denison states that you should also ask yourself another question:

“What does it cost me if I do not get involved and others define rules that are out of line with my needs, interests and experiences, but which I have to comply with because they are laid down in a standard? Hence, it is best to join in right at the start.”

Martin Denison receives the KMU award
[2010-05-26] During an event celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Austrian Standards Institute presented awards to persons who are role models by their outstanding commitment to standard-related initiatives. Martin Denison was among them because of the standards series for recreational divers initiated by him.