Autonomous technology is working alongside human initiative and common sense to improve fire safety and prevention
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Piper Alpha tragedy, in which explosions and subsequent fires on a North Sea oil platform killed 167 people and resulted in losses of about £1.7Bn (US$.2.2Bn).
Thirty years on, the ability to respond quickly and effectively to such hazards remains as important as ever - Deepwater Horizon is still very fresh in the memory and its impact is still being felt across the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, this year has seen several more incidents that remind us disaster is just a careless step away.
In April a fire broke out aboard the Asian Geos-owned geotechnical vessel Geos, with tragic consequences. Crew member Allahyarham Mohamad Saiful died aboard the Petronas-contracted vessel during the incident and two other members of the vessel’s 39-strong crew were hospitalised following evacuation.
In a press conference at the time, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency’s District 13 director capt Md Fauzi Othman said the OSVs Perdana Ranger and Nautica Aleesya had assisted in responding to the fire, rescuing survivors who had jumped from the vessel into the water. Tugs were also dispatched to douse the flames. According to Vesseltracker, Sinabawang Nabed 23 and Siakap were sent to assist the burning ship and were assisted themselves by offshore vessels Hisyam 8 and Neopetro 18.
March this year saw the US Coast Guard attend a reported fire on an unmanned Magellan-owned platform, three miles offshore Corpus Christi, Texas. Then in April a fire broke out in the sauna of Eni’s Goliat rig, offshore Norway. Thankfully, in both cases there were no casualties.
“The crew member attempted to tackle the blaze with a pillow but the cabin telephone exploded, igniting a second fire”
The human factor
The Safety Flashes put out by the International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA) serve as a sobering example of potential hazards. These detail injuries, fatalities, accidents and near-misses at sea, along with how they happened and how best to prevent a repeat of the incident. Worryingly, the human factor plays an important role in many of these cases.
In one incident, a crew member left a mobile phone and fan heater plugged in to an extension cable in his accommodation while he washed. On exiting the bathroom, he found his cabin filled with smoke and the telephone and extension cable both in flames.
The crew member attempted to tackle the blaze with a pillow but the cabin telephone exploded, igniting a second fire. In the meantime, fire alarms in adjacent cabins had gone off and another crew member activated a call point on discovering smoke. The electricity to the cabin was isolated and the fire put out with hoses before further damage could be done.
An investigation after the event found there was no control over personal electronics on board and no testing of either company-supplied or personal portable appliances before use. It was initially thought the cabin telephone had caught fire independently, but upon reconstruction blame turned to the extension cable and fan heater.
Other factors that exacerbated the incident included: overloading of the extension cable; electronic equipment being left plugged in and unobserved; poor housekeeping in terms of wire and cable management; inadequate risk control procedures and leadership; lack of awareness of safety; and insufficiently robust internal company management systems.
The causes of the above incident were relatively insignificant when considered in solitude, but combined, it becomes apparent how the most innocuous of actions can be potentially dangerous.
In another incident that demonstrates this well, cloth that had been used for general galley cleaning was taken from a tumble dryer, folded and piled in a steel bucket before being stowed in a cupboard three hours later. After another three hours, crew noticed the presence of smoke and a burning smell and the cloths were found to be smouldering.
Upon investigation it was discovered that the cloths were still contaminated from the cleaning, suggesting the items had been laundered at an incorrect temperature. In addition, the cloths had either been taken out of the dryer before the full cool-down cycle had been completed, or an incorrect temperature setting had been used.
The combination of contaminated and their not being fully cooled prior to stowage resulted in the cloths beginning to smoulder. IMCA’s alert noted “this is an ‘evergreen’ safety issue that has come up often. Our members may wish to bring this potentially serious issue once again to the attention of their management and crew.”
Further information on these incidents and others can be found on the Safety Flash section of the IMCA website.
Fire and explosion guidance updated
British trade association Oil & Gas UK has issued an update to its good practice guidance to help prevent fire and explosions on offshore installations.
The guidance provides best practices to allow the effective assessment and management of fire and explosion hazards.
The updates reflect current best practice, remove repetition and increase consistency across the technical detail.
The new guidance supersedes the previous guidance issued in May 2007. Developed by the Fire and Explosion Working Group of the Oil & Gas UK Major Hazards Technical Group, the updated guidance can be accessed by members on Oil & Gas UK’s website.
Oil & Gas UK’s health and safety manager Trevor Stapleton said: “The UK offshore oil and gas industry works hard to preserve its internationally respected major hazard-management reputation and this guidance is a significant part of that effort.
“This living document builds on guidance originally published in 2007 and is part of a planned review process. It aims to reduce the risk to life, the environment and the integrity of offshore facilities exposed to fire and explosion hazards by providing a robust technical foundation to support design decisions.”
Autonomous technology reduces risk when fighting fires
Kongsberg Maritime and Robert Allan's autonomous RALamander could be used for standby and ERRV operations offshore (credit: Robert Allan)
Naval architect Robert Allan has collaborated with Kongsberg Maritime to develop a remotely-operated fireboat that could be used to tackle dangerous fires without putting lives at risk.
Robert Allan is using its experience of tugboat design to develop the RALamander uncrewed fireboat. Kongsberg would provide the remote-control technology, including control systems, battery packs, vessel automation and navigation systems, according to Kongsberg sales manager for autonomy and offshore Sondre Larsson.
RALamander would be linked to a remote-control centre using Kongsberg’s maritime broadband radio communications, he explained. This vessel “can work with other unmanned fire-fighting vessels or alone”, he said at the annual Offshore Support Journal Conference in London in February.
Robert Allan has designed the vessel to have a FiFi 1 fire-fighting module with a 2,400 m3/hr capacity, with pump and monitors supplied by Fire Fighting Systems. The vessel could be directed to tackle marine and port fires involving containers or petrochemicals, both on ships and shoreside structures.
RALamander could operate in toxic smoke and areas of explosion risk, to avoid sending in manned fireboats. Facilities on board mean it could also be used for towing vessels to safe areas, or for tackling maritime fires during salvage projects.
Mr Larsson told delegates at the conference that remote-control vessels could also be used for standby and emergency response operations offshore. A fire-fighting vessel could be controlled from an offshore installation or master vessel using broadband communications. “It all depends on the regulations and market needs,” said Mr Larsson.