Helicopter Plan Enrages North Sea Rescue Vessel Operators

 - November 26, 2007, 11:16 AM

For those toiling for oil on the roiling North Sea, the stormy nature of that piece of water keeps the possibility of rescue constantly in mind. Traditionally that role has been filled by stationing formidably equipped rescue boats called emergency response and rescue vessels (ERRV) with each group of oil platforms. Now a move to replace these boats with helicopters is drawing heat from boat operators and stirred up controversy among those who make their living on those dangerous waters.

British Petroleum has awarded Bristow Helicopters a $15 million contract that calls for rapid rescue trials using a new SAR-equipped AS 332 Super Puma helicopter. The decision has understandably brought howls of protest from the Emergency Response and Rescue Vessel Association (ERRVA), whose members operate the boats that would be replaced. Citing the short time that a healthy man overboard and clad in an immersion suit can survive in North Sea winter waters (less than 30 min), the ERRVA is criticizing use of helicopters as too slow when it comes to real world oil field disasters. Extrapolating data from one such oilfield mishap, ERRVA calculated that recovery of 20 men in the water would take one hour for a rescue vessel in bad weather, and as much as 168 min for a helicopter. Of course, those figures are still theoretical, a fact BP Amoco cites as reason enough for actual helicopter tests. For its part, BP Amoco reassures everyone involved that the usual complement of on-site surface rescue boats will be at the rigs during the evaluation, set to begin sometime this fall.