The successful evacuation of the West Atlas taking place.

I recently wrote some words about the means by which offshore installations, particularly mobile units, are prepared for emergencies in terms of structure and equipment, and I suggested that, if it proved to be of interest, then I would write something about the procedural preparations for emergencies. And here we are talking about offshore installations, I am hopeful that in the case of rigs operating on land people can just run away. But out in the sea things are a bit different, and as well as all the potential emergencies created by unwanted hydrocarbons on the deck, the guys out there have to face the dangers inherent in the environment, something they often don’t seem to realise.

It has been my responsibility over the years to develop numerous emergency response plans for offshore drilling units, and the words “emergency response plan” are intended by the UK HSE (the Health and Safety Executive) to include everything meant to keep people safe out there. It starts with the “Station Bill”, and I says starts, because we know that for some people, in some parts of the world, that’s where it ends as well. Indeed, there have been investigations where it has been discovered that, subsequent to the departure of the rig from some sort of refit, no-one has put up the Station Bill, a situation exacerbated by the numbers of new crew members.

But, some will say, what more do we need other than having the guys muster at the lifeboats every couple of weeks as required by the Coast Guard. After all it’s never going to happen.

This is a really good starting point, and we have to consider the possibility that any of the emergencies that might result in deaths or the need to evacuate, could in fact happen and we have to convince the guys out there of the fact. Furthermore it is essential that the guidance provided can actually be used, otherwise they will plan to do something else.

So if we are lucky we will have carried out a major hazard risk assessment which will have identified the major accidents which might result in evacuation, and if not we’re going to assume that the guys can run to the other end of the rig and wait it out.

And if we don’t send people to the boats where are they going to go? Could the Temporary Refuge have a place? The TR, as it is known, might be unique to the UKCS after Piper Alpha, because many people assembled in the Mess Room after the first explosion, a space which proved to be anything but safe. So in the UK sector of the North Sea all offshore installations must be provided with a TR, in which people can wait out the emergency, and it must have been tested in a variety of ways to make sure that it can survive a major accident, and obviously in this case we are talking about fire or blowout. We won’t get hung up on what happened to the accommodation of the Deepwater Horizon, which was destroyed by the explosions on board. It obviously was not a TR, but let’s assume that there is somewhere that is suitable for people to muster and wait things out, and so the Station Bill should send people who do not have specific emergency tasks there (Why not the evacuation stations? It may be that they would be exposed to unacceptable levels of radiation). The Station Bill should also enumerate the make-up of the emergency teams and where they would muster and what they would do, and finally to which lifeboats all personnel would be assigned.

So much for the Station Bill, which seems pretty straightforward. Then the offshore object should be provided with an Emergency Response Manual, or as some call it an Emergency Preparedness Manual, which should provide guidance for the management on board as to what to do in any of the defined emergencies. There are some who say that every emergency is different and therefore it is not possible to plan for them. This is absolutely not true, all the emergencies are similar. Shallow gas blowouts are similar, reservoir blowouts are similar although there might be differences in approach between exploration and development drilling, all loss of stability events are similar, all machinery space fires are similar, and so on. However, the ways in which different types of unit respond to these events are different. Jack-ups do things in one way, moored semis another, DP semis another, drillships another, so the emergency responses must be tailored to the type of unit involved.

The Emergency Response Manual should provide those on board with realistic guidance on what to do in emergencies. And here we should try to avoid such things as heavy weather guidance which goes somewhere else, although structural failure and loss of stability do fit into the manual. And it is debatable whether medical emergencies should be included. Although some units have complete manuals dealing with collision risk, some forms of collision might be included, particularly those involving passing vessels. And ideally all the scenarios considered should have guidance for those managing the incident using realistic timings, and be written with the intent of helping in real emergencies, rather than fulfilling the drill requirements.

Obviously we are only scratching the surface, but any attempt to develop serious guidance for emergencies will result in opposition from those currently managing the unit. They really like their existing Station Bill, even if it is completely useless, and has been proved to be such, and many OIMs think that they don’t need any help to manage emergencies at all. They will just wing it on the day, they say. Some formal guidance can be seen to support this view, it will say “when the OIM gets to the Control Room he will take what action he considers to be necessary”. This is not good enough, and if any formal document say this it is just the management passing the buck. Apparently human beings can only retain seven bits of new information at once, so it is certain that the person in charge needs help, and the manual should reflect this view.

The offshore oil industry is fixated on blowouts as the most serious event likely to occur, even though usually most of the crew will survive. Actually if we look back, the Ocean Ranger and the Glomar Java Sea were the most serious events to occur to mobile units, all the crew being lost in each case, both being overcome in adverse weather. Many people were also lost on the Alexander H Kielland which capsized subsequent to structural failure. But let’s get back to blowouts. Mostly people do not evacuate in an orderly and controlled manner on instructions from those in charge. Even if they get to the boats they are not lowered away until something goes bang, and then on impulse rather than instruction. So ideally the emergency guidance should provide some help with the management’s efforts to determine when control of the well has been lost, and therefore when evacuation should take place. Ideally get off the thing before it all goes bang. But when developing the guidance it will be seen that some actions have to be taken by relatively junior members of the team. Typically, the ideal way for a moored semi to save itself from a blowout is to move off, releasing some moorings. This action might have to be carried out by the Ballast Control Operator, but we will have seen situations where he could hardly do the job because the mechanism for releasing the moorings is protected by glass, with a key – held by the OIM.

So having got the idea of what should be done offshore to complete this “Emergency Response Plan” a manual must be written for those onshore who will man the room which is in touch with the unit. Here it is important to emphasise that it is not the job of those in the Onshore Emergency Centre to tell those offshore what to do, in the style of Apollo 13. It is their job to provide support. If the rig asks for ships, get them some, if helicopters get the commercial aircraft supplier on the job and the providers of airborne rescue services. Here there are international differences. The UK has some rescue helicopters, the Norwegians some, but nothing like the massive support made available by the US Coast Guard. And then of course there are parts of the world where rescue services are limited or non existent. The onshore support should take these things into account. And it is its function to deal with the media and the relatives of those offshore. There should already be a media response on file, which will tell journos something and get them onside. Today there is so much stuff in the public domain that they can write a complete article, possibly putting the company in a very bad light, without even contacting you. The relative response should expect to receive many calls from relatives or friends of people offshore who may not be working on the unit involved, but working on another of the company rigs, or in the area, or for the charterers. Relatives often do not take any notice of which particular unit their husband, son, niece or nephew is working on, they just know he or she is somewhere out there.

 And it is a feature of modern emergencies that often those in charge on the unit have spent much time on the telephone talking to their superiors, well in advance of the actual identified emergency but during what we might call the build up to it. Seldom have the contents of these discussion made it into the pages of the formal investigations because the Presidents, Vice-Presidents or others have said that nothing untoward had been discussed. In one case the investigators were able, from the phone records, to identify many calls on the day in question between the rig and the drilling supervisor, but when asked for the detailed information his diary showed no entries at all on the day.

The question here is, if any of you are in doubt, whether the manager being telephoned had the appropriate skills to be able to guide his employee offshore, that is, if the conversations were about anything other than routine matters. And so, when the conversations took place could that have been the time for the initiation of the onshore emergency support.

So many questions. And finally, we need to train everybody in what they might need to do in an emergency. Out on the rig the people who are to be active in an emergency should receive the appropriate training, which is usually a “Management of Major Emergencies” course, and for the lesser personnel some form of survival course. When the Rowan Gorilla I sank in the North Atlantic the successful evacuation was attributed to the crew’s recent survival training. Onshore, the people who are to man the support operation should receive the appropriate training, and then everything should be exercised. There is no point in putting a senior manager in charge of the onshore emergency support if he is not going to be available for training or exercises. You’d be better off training a man from the mail room. And as I have always said to my clients who have questioned this common sense approach, “if you don’t do all this, how’s it going to look in court”. And experience is showing us it does not look good.

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