Here is the Caledonian Vanguard entering Aberdeen in 2006 with the ARRCs on the davits, the fruition of the BP Jigsaw project. 

Over the period of fifteen years, between 2000 and 2015, BP developed an alternative system for providing their platforms in the North Sea with emergency support instead of ERRVs, modified it, gained agreement for it from the HSE, built and operated four specialised vessel with even more specialised rescue craft, and then in 2015 discontinued the whole business and converted the ships into very large platform ships. This was my first foray into writing about the whole thing, written in October 2000.

One assumes that the proposal by BP to replace a large number of standby vessels, or as they are now known Emergency Response and Rescue Vessels, with six helicopters was named "Project Jigsaw" because the project would put all the pieces together. Unfortunately, even given the information released by BP during October, it is still difficult to see how everything fits particularly since it appears that the timescale for the plan has been extended.

Of course, there are places in the world where standby vessels are not used at all, and so some may wonder what all the fuss is about. Having six dedicated search and rescue helicopters might sound like an expensive and unnecessary luxury, and to have them provided by a private company quite difficult to understand. Therefore for the benefit of those unused to a legislative requirement for rescue facilities and to clarify the status of the ERRV in UK legislation it is probably worthwhile providing a bit of background.

In the UK sector government legislation traditionally required that every offshore installation be provided with its own standby vessel, although if there were two within five miles of each other they could share one SBV. Subsequent to the Piper Alpha disaster the enquiry headed by Lord Cullen determined that the Silver Pit, the rescue vessel assigned to the installation, was limited in its ability to carry out the task which might be required of it, and so the industry produced a set of rules for standby vessels called the Green Code.  The Green Code resulted in almost all the old trawlers which had been used for the previous 20 years being retired and their places being taken by a variety of craft. Most of them were old supply vessels because this ship type has the means of manoeuvring required by the code.

The traditional UK standby vessel operators, who in the main had previously been fishing vessel owners, took on the new requirements with enthusiasm and some supply ship owners entered the market, using their old tonnage or scouring the world for suitable hulls. The result was a general upgrade of the service and an increase in day rates to the point where they became a meaningful cost in the exploration and production budgets of the UK operators.

Also, subsequent to Piper Alpha, the Health and Safety Executive took over from the UK Department of Energy as the authority in charge of safety on Britain's offshore installations, and by the end of 1995 were ensuring that every one of them was provided with a Safety Case which embodied the goal setting requirements of the safety case legislation. This legislation made the operators of rigs and platforms responsible for the safety everybody on board.

In an effort to plug any loopholes in the safety case legislation the HSE pushed through the PFEER (Prevention of Fire and Explosion and Emergency Response) Regulations which came into force in 1995, but like the rest of the goal setting legislation, allowed those involved a couple of years to put the new requirements in place. These regulations required managers of offshore installations to offer their workers a "good prospect of recovery" to a place of safety in the event that they fell overboard, had to escape to the sea or were survivors of a helicopter ditching.

This onerous requirement has resulted in the capabilities of the Emergency Response and Rescue Vessels being put under a microscope. During the winters of 1998 and 1999 helicopters were frequently grounded at Aberdeen airport because out at the location the master of the ERRV had determined that he would be unable to rescue anybody if the helicopter crashed into the sea during the landing.

In order to extend the operating envelope of the rescue fleet, many are fitted with heave compensated davits which are intended to allow fast rescue craft to be launched and recovered in adverse weather, possibly in five meter seas. Many are also fitted with a device called the Dacon scoop which is a sort of monster shrimping net, enabling the ship to scoop survivors out of the water in extreme weather conditions.

The PFEER legislation requires that the operators of offshore installations set performance standards for the recovery of personnel from the water, which on the face of it does not seem too difficult to do. Find out how long a person can survive in the sea and make sure that he or she is picked out of the water within that time. But how long can a person survive in the sea? A quotation from the BP in house magazine "The Issue" gives a hint at how that Company views survival times:

"The emergency response plans for any installation must consequently ensure that individuals working in such areas of the platform have access to lifejackets and immersion suits which will enable a thin man - more susceptible to hypothermia than a fat one - to survive for three hours in the water". The article goes on to say "Under the Jigsaw plan, a search and rescue helicopter would be on the scene in no more than 45 minutes after the alarm was raised, which should give it plenty of time to recover anyone from the water".

In a later copy of the Issue it is suggested that "without doubt there is a strong technical argument to support the view that helicopters improve the time of rescue in this extreme weather…..This faster recovery time represents a potential maximum of 90 minutes from first alert to return to a place of safety against BP's current two hour federal standard based on standby vessel capabilities". The same article had earlier described the potential limitations of the ERRV, the FRC and the Dacon scoop in such a way as to suggest that it must be all over bar the shouting. Why then would anyone be objecting to such improvements?

Many of BP's workers might be surprised that the company consider it valid to leave them in the water for up to two hours if they happened to fall overboard or find themselves in the sea as a result of a helicopter crash. In 1995 the UK Health and Safety Executive published "OTO Report 95 038, The Review of Probable Survival Times for Immersion in the North Sea". This report spelt out in some detail something that was already known to medical experts associated with the marine industry, that except in flat calm conditions there is much more chance of people in the water dying of drowning rather than hypothermia. The report indicated that in the North Sea in winter there was a limited chance of anyone dressed in a standard helicopter survival suit lasting for more than 30 minutes in the sea.

In order to demonstrate the speed with which an ERRV can rescue personnel, individual craft at individual locations are required to carry out regular exercises, and can often recover 15 dummies from the water in a matter of minutes, regardless of whether they are using their FRCs or the Dacon scoop. Typically, on an exercise in February of this year the Viking Venturer an ERRV operated by Viking Standby Ltd picked up 20 dummies using its Dacon Scoop in 17 minutes. That is, 17 minutes after the alarm was raised, an amazing performance by any standards although the care given to plastic people might be slightly less than that offered to human ones. Of course as weather deteriorates so their capability becomes more limited and the potential survival time for those in the sea, what-ever BP might say, is also reduced.

Here-in is the strongest argument for Jigsaw, the ability of the helicopter to rescue people in extreme weather conditions. This was demonstrated after the Cormorant Alpha disaster in 1992 where a Super Puma with 15 passengers and two crew plunged into the sea during a shuttle flight. Three helicopters took part in the rescue and four of the six survivors were rescued by helicopter. The wind speed exceeded 55 knots and the masters of the standby vessels on the scene determined that it would not be advisable for them to launch their FRCs. They did not have Dacon scoops which might have been of assistance, since despite the efforts of the ship's crews which were at times heroic, only two people were recovered on board alive, principally because the men in the water were unable to help themselves in any way. 

BP indicated that as a result of their consultation process with the workforce, extended trials would be carried out using a fully equipped search and rescue helicopter deployed somewhere offshore. They say that delivery of such an aircraft will be in about 15 months time and after that trials will take about six months. Those consulted about the scheme also requested that BP carry out a study into the possibilities of providing each helicopter host platform with a multi-role support vessel, and BP in their statement have said that the offshore workforce will be involved in the multi-role vessel study and in designing and observing the helicopter trials.

The consultation process is required by the Safety Case Regulations, but in reality assessing the existing system against the possible future one is extremely complex, and in the documents available some questions remain unasked. It is suggested that the four offshore helicopters be distributed over the whole of the North Sea, one in the far North, possibly at Magnus, one in the East Shetland Basin, one in the Central North Sea and one in the Southern North Sea and that these are supported by a helicopter at Aberdeen and one at Great Yarmouth. It seems likely that these would replace seventeen or eighteen ERRVs, and that some platform based FRCs would be put in place.

It would be difficult for an expert in emergency response with experience in the interpretation of the regulations to determine whether what BP propose would offer an improvement over the current system, and it is probable that many of those lobbying on behalf of the ERRVs are emotionally motivated. It is reassuring to look over the side and see a little ship down there, guarding the boundaries. The Members of Parliament who have been involved, most of whom seem to favour the retention of the ERRVs and the officials of the trades unions whose members man the ships, probably wish to see the ongoing employment of large numbers of seafarers. BP on the other hand seem to be developing arguments to validate its proposals rather than taking an unbiased view, although they emphasise that their intention is to save lives rather than save money.

They do, for instance in The Issue, suggest that ERRV radars can only detect approaching vessels at four to five miles distance, and that platform based radars would be able to detect approaching ships at 12 miles. This would allow a platform based helicopter to be dispatched in time to alert the approaching vessel. If shipboard radars are so limited most platforms are effectively unprotected from colliding vessels at present. This under the PFEER regulations would be an intolerable situation and there is no doubt that the ERRV owners will respond in robust manner to such criticism.

Both sides seem to be focusing on peripheral arguments including on the part of the ERRV Association "that they can rescue survivors where-ever they are, including those under the installation". BP answered this by saying that helicopters can be as close to an installation as they can get to a mountain when carrying out rescues in the highlands, and that appropriately equipped helicopters could get "within half a rotor's diameter from the platform".  Surely a helicopter half a rotor's diameter from a platform is itself in danger, and one of the strengths of the ERRV argument must be that they have the means of rescuing people from the sea, while their crew remain relatively safe.

Hence, in order to get a high level review of the plan as well as some expert validation, BP submitted its proposals to the Health and Safety Executive in August, to the distress of most of the opposition who felt that expert views might overcome political views. However, the HSE were understandably reticent, not wishing to express a view which might in any way prejudice the consultation process which was at that time still continuing. BP announced the extension to their consultation process on October 3rd, and until it is complete it would not be possible for the regulatory body to express an opinion.

It is of course up to BP to make a case for safety for each of its installations, which includes the rescue and recovery of personnel from the sea, and regardless of any emotional input or expert opinion it is the Safety Case for each installation which will be reviewed and accepted or rejected. Even if Project Jigsaw seems like a good idea in principle, the principle must be applied to each Installation and a revised Safety Case submitted to the HSE. So regardless of the outcome of the consultation process it still seems likely that this story will run and run. 

Copyright © 2019 Ships and Oil. All Right Reserved.