Falck: Training = Awareness = Minimising risks

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When working offshore there should be one golden rule: Safety first! All kinds of legislation and regulations have been set up to ensure that both the health and safety of the employees are respected, in facet of their work, and rest time, offshore. However these rules can vary by country and also by the different activities. The offshore wind sector is, like other industries, not free of accidents and although there is no way to predict how one will react in an emergency situation, good training will at least make one aware of the possible risks involved while working offshore and how the individual and a group where he, or she, is working should react in the various emergency situations. 

Whatever your reason is for going offshore everyone is required to have completed the necessary training. And this is of course what Offshore WIND wants to do, to report on the industry from as close to the source as possible! Several training centres throughout Europe offer these courses ranging from the necessary basic training up to very specific training. One of those centres is Falck Safety Services, formerly known as Falck Nutec, on the Maasvlakte near Rotterdam.

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With 26 training centres in 5 continents, Falck is providing training for the on and offshore industry world wide. In this location their training centre is located in the heart of Europoort. the Dutch energy and heavy industry centre, near Rotterdam, where the Offshore WIND office is located. “Learning is knowing” and therefore 2 Offshore WIND reporters, including myself, decided to take the required training to go offshore, the Basic Offshore Safety Induction and Emergency Training (BOSIET). The training consists of 4 modules; Safety Induction, Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET), Sea Survival and First Aid, Fire Fighting and Self Rescue.

Day 1 – Safety Induction & Fire Fighting

Located on the flat reclaimed Europoort land, all the Falck training facilities are clear to see, in fact they are hard to miss with the, sometimes, black smoke spiralling up from the fire fighting courses. This is where we would be for the following 3 days of the BOSIET training.

We entered the centre on the first day with mixed feelings of anxiety and nervousness. The unknown is one’s greatest fear and having heard people wishing us ‘good luck’ and ‘how brave!’ certainly affected our view on what to expect. They were of course referring to the HUET training but at this time we had no idea when this would be. Our anxiety was soon dispelled, at least for the moment; it would on the final day. We registered in the canteen, showed our medical certificates of good health, signed Falck’s Safety Statement, and then joined the other members of our group.

Our first instructor of the day, Erik, soon arrived and after introducing himself took us on a tour round the training premises while showing us the muster points in case of emergency.

Our class rooms were built on a pontoon floating in part of the maze of harbours of Europoort behind Falck’s administration building. Out on the deck of the pontoon the different types of davits and other escape and rescue equipment were placed for the practical lessons. As Erik explained, 60% of all accidents are caused by slips and falls and so the rule of one hand on the railing when using the stairs was the first rule of safety to be learned.

In the class room we were first asked to introduce ourselves to each other. Our group of 16 was a good mixture of nationalities from France, the largest group, Dutch, German, Canadian and English. I was surprised to find that I was not the only woman on this course. I was of course curious to know whether the other 2 were doing the training to work fulltime offshore or, just like us, for short visits offshore.

I would find out later that the latter was indeed the case.

OW15_spread.jpg 34 3During the next 2 hours we received a safety induction to explain what to expect when going offshore, the importance of the use of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), and the current regulations, such as those issued by OPITO and NOGEPA. To make sure we were paying attention Erik fired questions at us during the lecture. Fortunately we could take notes as we would be tested at the end! A pass mark of 80% in the multiple choice test was needed to be able to move on to the next section of the course and in the end we were all relieved to leave the room with mission accomplished and headed back to the main building for lunch where we got the chance to get to know one and another a bit better.

After lunch we were picked up by Irena, a spontaneous Argentinian lady who would be our trainer for the afternoon of basic fire fighting. With fanaticism and humour she explained to us when to use which device, such as AFFF, CO2, powder, and water, for extinguishing different fires. With good but also chocking anecdotes we were taught how easy it is to make mistakes. Most mistakes are human so it is important to know exactly what to do but even more important what NOT to do. With this in the back of our minds it was time to get into action!

A large area of Falck’s premises is set up for training fire fighting, escape and rescue with real fire and smoke. After we put on the necessary protection clothes and helmet we entered the training area which was almost like entering a war zone. We were definitely not the only ones that day. This is an area where group training takes place on a daily basis and it is also here where the fire brigades do their regular training. Our group was split up in two; one would practise with the different fire extinguishers while the other group would practise escape from smoke filled spaces.

We were in the first group, lead by another instructor, Edwin. The most important message we received was to have a Dynamic Risk Assessment before you start; See, Think, Act! Race the alarm, think of your own safety and then if it is only a small fire you can extinguish it. Before using the extinguisher you always have to test it first for a few seconds and then make sure that you keep a proper distance from the fire. Most importantly, make sure you check the wind direction to know where to stand best without getting injured.

When finished it was our turn to join Irena again and train to escape from smoke filled spaces. To simulate the effect of smoke on our vision our smoke masks had an opaque cover over the eye piece. We could detect light and dark and blurred forms, but no detail. With one hand on the wall and the other to identify our surroundings we were one by one lead into the first of 3 rooms with the task of finding an exit in one of them. How difficult can it be was my first thought as I knew the area was not that big but how was I fooled! Only one of our group, my colleague, coincidentally, actually found the exit. Everybody else on the group struggled, bumping into the obstacles, while in the background you could hear the others laughing. This being only a training course we felt we had the right to laugh but of course we became well aware of the dangerous aspects if this was reality.

It is like driving on a familiar road until one day you get caught in a snow storm or thick mist and can’t see more than a few metres ahead. Suddenly you have no clue where you are and what is happening. Unlike being in the safety of a warm car here we had to deal with the reality of smoke, heat and perhaps even fire. It was the group escape where with impaired vision, we were made aware of the reality. When one of us was intentionally set apart and had to shout for help, the entire group made an effort to find the ‘missing person’, only later to be told that in real life situations we should have to leave the person behind and get out as quick as possible to get help. That was a thought we took home with us, or for our foreign team members, their hotel. Day one was finished.

Day 2 – Sea Survival & Helicopter Safety

Day 2, ready for evacuation and escape from a vessel or platform in case of emergencies. The first few hours were spent again on absorbing loads of theoretical background information, provided by instructor Jorn, first on the procedures to follow while still on the vessel or platform, such as identifying the different alarms, how to raise the alarm, what to do next such as gathering at the muster station and getting your survival suit on, and to whom you should respond in emergency situations.

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After that we also discussed the different methods of getting from the vessel or platform and more importantly, when to use which one, with the best one being, when available, a helideck and a bridge landing point, while the final scenario would be stepping off, definitely NOT jumping! For the latter we learned that if the height was more than 4 to 5 meters that it is wiser not put the life jacket on yet but to hold it when stepping off to avoid the life jacket hitting your chin when hitting the water. We also discussed what is available in the lifeboat or life raft for survival and how to use it.

After the theory we practised a few escape means, via a net tunnel as a way to get into a life raft that is already in the water, followed by getting into a free fall life boat and learning the procedures required before launching. It is hard to imagine that in this confined space you would have to survive with a group of people pressed against each other and with absence of a toilet! Fortunately offshore wind farms are mainly located in the busy North Sea and rescue should not take longer than a a few hours.

After a welcome break the afternoon was spent getting ready for next day’s HUET training. Yet another instructor, Rob, taught us the entire process from heliport procedures, checking the personal equipment and the different checks to do in case of a helicopter ditch. At the end of the day we felt we were prepared for our helicopter ditching exercise on our last day, but still a little anxious.

Day 3 – HUET & Sea Survival II

Our final day of the course at Falck. Today would be the day that we would ‘go under’! What would be our best strategy; first do the survival exercise or straight in at the deep end with the HUET? The choice was made for us, we were placed in the group that
would start with the survival exercise. First we had to put on the thermal under garment followed by the heavy survival suit. This was not that easy, and we were not yet even in the water. Expelling air from the suit caused much laughter even though it had be described as essential for ease of movement in the water.

Jolanda was the instructor for the survival practise. Calmly she told us how to step off, again NOT jump from a vessel, how to position your body; arms crossed in front of your upper body and one foot in front of the other. When the last of our group was in the water we swam up to the survival raft where we had to climb in. That was actually the one thing that I was most worried about; how to lift and drag myself in this heavy suit up into the raft. Fortunately the ropes around the raft and a rope ladder definitely made this easier than expected but of course here we were not being tossed around by high waves in ice cold water!

Inside the damp raft Jolanda described the uses of the survival equipment available in the raft and when to use these, for example how to catch the attention of passing vessels or helicopters. As with the other sections of the training we were made to think about the situation and the purpose of the training.

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We left the raft by means of ‘helicopter rescue’. A line was lowered down and by placing the harness strap tightly under our arms we were lifted up. Yet another thing to remember: it is important to let the line touch the water first to ‘earth’ any electric charge it may have from the helicopter. Swimming in a ‘crocodile’ line, grouping together to conserve heat and energy, never letting go of the person on either side of you, attracting the attention of a helicopter crew by creating a white splash foam kicking in the water, and how to swim with an injured or unconscious person, these all form essential parts of surviving at sea, and we did them all!

Now was the time we had all dreaded at the start of the day. Strangely our anxieties had all but disappeared. We had become confident of the trainers’ abilities. We had been told we could do it, now we actually believed them.

Back in the water we practised our re-breathing equipment underwater so there would be fewer surprises when going under. In groups of 4 we started the helicopter ditching exercises. There would be 6 ditchings in total. The first one to practice how to escape onto the rescue raft when the helicopter remained afloat after ditching. This was followed by the first under water experience, still without our breathing device and with the window open.

After the ‘Prepare for ditching’ call we changed to brace position and when we hit the water the capsule was lowered slowly underwater. At the same time we had to put to practise the different steps in escaping: check your seatbelt – check your surroundings – in case of sitting next to the window: one hand on the window – take a deep breath and wait until the rotor blades touch the water – wait 3 seconds – put your head through the window and then release your buckle. We had learned on the previous day that when releasing it while your body is still fully in the helicopter you would instantly float up to the ceiling of the helicopter making your chances to escape minimal. And indeed, the moment we released the buckle it only took a few seconds to reach the surface.

The next would be the first ditch where the capsule would turn 180 degrees. All of the sudden you have lost your sense of direction even though this was in a clear blue water pool. However, having practised the different steps in the class, in the capsule and, for me at least, many times in my head, the exercise went well and we all came up again properly with the only difference that our noses would be filled with water. After this we had 3 more ditches to practice with breathing equipment and closed windows.

Looking back it was not that hard and it was, as I mentioned at the beginning, more the fear of the unknown. But we have done the ditches surrounded by well trained Falck instructors and divers who really watched every little step we took and who could tell by our face expression or breathing rhythm how we were doing and we knew that we would be safe within a few seconds in case of panic, either by the help of the divers themselves or by pulling the capsule up! We thanked everybody and went to get our suits off and get dry again, feeling relieved.

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However, I always tried to keep in the back of my head during the training how it would be if we were really out on a helicopter flight above the North Sea and our helicopter got in trouble. I can only imagine the fear or panic you would already encounter while still in the air, knowing that you would shortly be ditching into the pitch dark, and mostly cold waters of the North Sea, not knowing whether you will get out or not and, whether your colleagues will. Even if you do, you could still be out there floating in the middle of the sea with the high waves around you, hoping to get rescued soon!

After the HUET, an anti-climax but still absolutely essential final BOSIET training section in the afternoon on First Aid and Personal Descending System. We were split up again in 2 groups, one to practise how to put on the climbing gear and how to use it to descend, and the other group to practise what different steps to follow in case you find someone injured or unconscious. Jolanda covered the section on First Aid and explained us how to perform CPR. But the basis rule we were taught was: KISS -Keep it Simple and Short and always remember to make sure that your safety does come first.

After both groups had completed the 2 trainings we gathered in one of the class rooms to get to the very last part of the training – receiving our certificates!! Mission accomplished! We said goodbye to each other, after 3 days of intensive working together this actually felt a bit strange. Now each of us will be using the knowledge that we acquired in our own way, possibly on an offshore oil platform, a vessel or on a wind turbine.

The message that I took home after 3 days of absorbing loads of information and then putting this information to practise was that in reality nobody can say how he or she will really react in real life emergencies but in having done this training will at least make one aware of what can happen and what you can do in those situations. Surely even if you only remember a few things, your colleagues might remember other things and together this might safe your life!

We thank all of the instructors of Falck and the other members of our group for a very informative and at the same time thoroughly good experience!

Sabine Lankhorst