Ryan Crighton, 20th March 2009
The use of emergency beacons designed to save the lives of offshore workers was halted last night over fears they could interfere with vital aircraft equipment.
Following recommendations by experts investigating last month’s Super Puma crash in the North Sea, the Civil Aviation Authority has asked all helicopter firms to block the use of unauthorised personal locator beacons.
PLBs, as they are known, are issued by oil companies to their staff. The devices send out a signal which helps rescuers to locate workers if they end up in the sea.
However, the Department of Transport’s Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) inquiry into the Bond helicopter crash on February 18 found the device could inter-fere with the more powerful beacon signal from downed aircraft and liferafts.
An emergency summit will be held in Aberdeen next week to discuss the problem with industry bosses.
The Press and Journal understands that a PLB may have caused the ditched helicopter’s main beacon to shut down during the drama in the Etap field 125 miles east of Aberdeen last month.
All 18 people on board the Super Puma escaped unhurt after the flight crew became disorientated and the helicopter hit the water.
A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority said: “The CAA can confirm that is has written to the operators of offshore helicopters pointing out the risk that unauthorised personal locator beacons may interfere with the main beacons on helicopters and liferafts. This follows advice from the Air Accident Investigation Branch.”
But Jake Molloy, regional organiser for the RMT union in Aberdeen, believes the beacons can be the difference between life and death for offshore workers.
He said: “I can understand the concerns from the CAA that the aircraft beacons take precedence. But I really hope there can be some tweaking to the technology to bring these devices back into use.
“In the event of workers ending up in water, these devices can be crucial if the helicopter sinks or they are separated from the aircraft.”
It is believed that one of the beacons referred to by the CAA is the Wristwatch model, widely used by BP.
Last night BP confirmed it had halted use of its 2,500 wrist beacons until the issue has been resolved.
The beacons were a key part of BP’s Jigsaw offshore safety system, the controversial scheme revealed in 2000 which involved scrapping the use of standby safety vessels.
The idea was to commission four large mother ships, each with two high-performance lifeboats, combined with more helicopter cover, the wrist locator devices and better survival kit.
A spokeswoman for BP insisted that Jigsaw provides other methods of tracking workers lost at sea, including thermal-imaging cameras.
She added: “We have been made aware of possible compatibility issues between personal locator beacons and the locator on helicopters. Until these issues are resolved, personal locator beacons will not be issued.”
Aberdeen-based Ultra Electronics SML helped design the Wristwatch personal locator beacon with BP.
Last night, company boss Craig Revie said the problems could be fixed. He also confirmed that the firm had been contacted as part of the AAIB’s investigation into the Super Puma crash.
Bond Offshore Helicopters confirmed last night it would not be letting anyone on board wearing a wrist beacon following the safety advice.
Industry group Oil and Gas UK has organised a special meeting of industry leaders next week to seek a solution.
A spokeswoman said: “We are looking into the scale of this technical issue and the impact it may have for the system in future.
“These devices are used by a number of operators to aid the locating of personnel in the event of an emergency.
“We have a meeting scheduled for early next week bringing together users, helicopter operators, manufacturers, the Health and Safety Executive and the Civil Aviation Authority to discuss the best technical solution to overcome this issue.”