Emergency Drills

How effective are they?

By Hal Lomax, Reprinted With Permission from the Divers Association International

Offshore firefighting training at GTSC Abu Dhabi. Photos By H. Lomax.

On December 1, 1958, fire broke out at an elementary school in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Fire crews responded quickly to the scene, but 92 children and 3 Catholic Nuns died, trapped in the school. The school building was built to all fire safety codes, so what happened? In the investigation that followed, it was determined that school staff and children had no idea what their respective roles were in the event of a fire. The United States currently averages one school fire every 1.6 days, yet there has not been one single child lost to fire in a school since the Chicago fire of 1958. There is more at play here than good luck. Every school (and most public buildings) in the western world now hold regular fire drills.

On April 15, 1912 the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank off Newfoundland, Canada while on her maiden voyage. Actual figures vary somewhat, but between 1500 and 1525 people died in the sinking. Everyone knows by now that there were not enough lifeboats on board for even half the passengers, let alone the crew. However, not everyone knows that had there been sufficient lifeboats on board, it is estimated that between 500 and 1000 people would still have perished. In the investigation that followed the sinking, it was determined that less than 5 percent of the crew knew how to board or even launch the lifeboats, and virtually none of the passengers knew. We all see the news reports of the marine disasters of today, but since the Titanic, there has never been a loss of life that even remotely approaches the magnitude of that disaster. There is more at play here than good luck. International maritime law today requires that all ships, passenger and otherwise, perform regular lifeboat, man-overboard, and fire drills.

The two incidents recorded above demonstrate how drills can prepare people for dealing with an emergency. In an emergency or in any high-stress, high-adrenalin situation, actions that have been rehearsed repeatedly will be performed automatically. Military trainers know this – the US Army Special Forces, the US Navy Seals, the British SAS, and many other special forces drill constantly, and rehearse specific tactics over and over prior to missions. Firefighters in most major cities are constantly training. The IAFF (the Firefighter’s Union) will tell you that the fire departments with the most training hours logged have the fewest injuries and deaths, and save the most lives. Is this just a mere coincidence? Research indicates that it most certainly is not.

How Does This Apply to Diving Crews?

Every diver working today can tell you that they had to perform countless bailout drills during their training. I started asking divers a few years ago how many bailout drills they had performed since leaving school. You would be shocked (or maybe not) to find out that most divers I have encountered offshore have not carried out one single bailout drill since leaving school. And for some of the grey-hairs, that was not yesterday. It is probably the most important (and simple) drill that any diver can perform, yet it is not done. We have all had to climb out of the rack on the off-shift for muster station drills, helideck incident drills, lifeboat drills, and all of the other IMO required drills that our vessels have to perform. And let’s face it: none of us are really happy about that when it happens, but we do it. But how many of us regularly carry out drills that specifically address the emergencies that can arise with the diving operation?

Unconscious diver extraction drill supervised by ADCI Air Supervisor/DIT UW Burning Instructor Josh Oxley.

I worked as a supervisor under one superintendent in the Middle East who everyone said was anal about drills for the diving crews. I can tell you this much: had an incident occurred on one of that man’s crews, he could rest assured that his supervisors and divers would perform exactly as they should. I thought that his attitude toward drills was exactly the way it should be (and I did not get grief for holding drills). Every one of us has to remember that we are working in an environment that does not support life. It may well be an overused cliché, but it is true. We do not often get second chances. What the divers, diving supervisors, and the superintendents need to realize is this: in the diving industry, there are not many items on the safety agenda that are more important than holding regular emergency drills. I have even seen supervisors fill out record of training drill forms when the drills were simply done orally. An oral drill is like having a medical exam by telephone — it’s of little use. The real importance of the diving crew’s lives to the supervisor or the superintendent will be directly reflected by how and how often they actually perform emergency drills. That is one hard statement, but it is true.

Remember — drills are a part of safety training, and in training, repetition is important. Repeating a task is what “makes it stick,” as an old instructor used to say. It has been proven that constant repetition of any given task will enable the subject to carry out that task under high stress as though it were a biological response. That is the same reason that we keep repeating our offshore survival, firefighting, first-aid, and so on.

Unconscious Diver Recovery drill, Mediterranean Sea.

Which Drills?

There are some drills that must be performed on every job, regardless of the type of operation or location. There are simple drills: loss of gas (bailout) drill, the loss of communications (line-pull) drill and there are complex drills: standby diver deployment, unconscious/injured diver recovery, diver on deck with DCS, trapped diver, man down drills, etc. Most of these can be performed with very little (or no) impact on productivity. Others of equal importance will impact productivity. These drills, such as HRC deployment and loss of power to the main bell recovery winch, will of necessity require more critical timing and planning, and client approval. Then there are job site specific drills, such as H2S drills with a diver in the water. These are a little more complicated, and each job typically will require a specific procedure to be worked out between the diving department, the client, and the vessel personnel.

The Important Stuff

The same superintendent mentioned above had a favorite saying about drills that I have used ever since I first heard him say it: “with drills, technique is as important as time”. I am not saying time is not important, but first you work on the technique. Once the diving crew gets technique down to a science, the speed will follow. And technique is not always the same. Unconscious Diver Recovery drill, Mediterranean Sea.For example, we have all used different LARS set up in different configurations on different types of vessel and installation. Each system is unique, and likewise the method to deploy the standby diver and recover an injured diver will be slightly different. This will require some discussion on the part of the divers and the supervisors. Each time a drill is carried out, there should be a discussion after the fact to examine what worked, what did not, and what can be done to improve. This is far better than figuring it out during a life or death emergency situation.

Ship Muster Drill, West Africa.
Man Down Drill, West Africa.

How Often?

Diving crews should try to perform the simple drills as often as possible. These help to keep the individual divers on their toes and ready to address small problems before they get to be big problems. The more complex drills often have to be planned for weather days or other down days to reduce impact on productivity, but usually there is a chance to fit one in quite often. With diving crew rotations the way they are, in order to keep the crew up on emergency procedures, one drill per week (per shift) is a necessity.

What Repercussions Can I Expect?

Hard as it may be to believe when you look at the death rate over the past few years, there is a slightly more positive view of safety on the job site today than in times past. I recall hearing client representatives yelling “never mind the damn bailout, get that diver in the water now” and similar comments, and believe me — they were not joking. Today it is more common to have the client rep pointing out a tripping hazard beside the chamber van. The clients (for the most part) realize that drills are important — but they still will not stand for the job being delayed for the diving crew to perform a drill. Plan your drills accordingly, and the client and your employer will appreciate it. Keep records of all of the drills performed, and most clients will want copies for their records. Drills are the best way to prepare the crew for an emergency, and if (God forbid) there is an incident, you will have a real chance of seeing that there is a favorable outcome.