After 103 years, is it time for Innovation in Boat Drills?

Another accident happened last week during a lifeboat drill on the coast of Labrador in Canada. Two crew members were injured and two shaken up when the forward hook released during recovery (click here for news story).

Routine boat drills are a requirement of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention and were made mandatory in 1914 as a result of the loss of the Titanic. The focus of mandatory drills is to prepare the crew for an evacuation and provides an opportunity to verify that the equipment is working (see MSC.1/Circ.1578).

Accidents like the one which happened last week highlights the dangers of relying on drills to assure crew competence and equipment reliability. It begs the question: is there a better way of training crew and testing equipment such that neither an equipment failure nor a human error would result in injury or death?

The answer to this question could be found in the offshore oil and gas industry which also uses lifeboats to evacuate the crew in the event of an emergency. Until recently, the offshore industry incorporated the same century-old lifeboat drill rules into the MODU Code. Three years ago, they made a fundamental change to lifeboat drills.

On November 18, 2014, the MODU Code was amended to authorize alternative methods for lifeboat drills to replace the launch and recovery of boats every 3 months (see MSC.387(94)). The amendment allows offshore operators to implement a competence assurance program and a separate inspection regime. Regulators can approve the alternative method as long as it results in equivalent levels of competence and equipment reliability as that achieved by performing boat drills.

Since the focus of a drills is to train coxswains how to use the equipment fitted on-board, alternate competence assurance programs under the MODU Code must use equipment the same as, or substantially similar to, the lifeboats carried on the facility.

Prior to 2010, this provision would be a deal-breaker since it would not be reasonable to expect training providers to operate every model of lifeboat found in the offshore industry. Waterfront property is valuable, maintenance of davits is expensive and some lifeboats currently in use are no longer manufactured.

In 2010, however, IMO formally recognized simulation as a valid method of training and assessing lifeboat coxswains through the Manila Amendments to STCW. The recognition of simulators completely changes the game for lifeboat drills and makes it feasible to economically replicate the layout of any lifeboat currently in operation.

Research conducted in Canada has not only confirmed that skills learned in a simulator can be transferred to a lifeboat, but that virtual drills are a superior method of preparing crews for evacuations under the most difficult conditions that they are likely to encounter.

For the past 103 years the shipping sector has been using lifeboat drills to simultaneously test equipment and train crews. Perhaps now is the time to amend SOLAS to authorize alternative methods for lifeboat drills on ships. Given the accidents which have been occurring, and the availability of new training technologies, surely its time for a change.

If you are interested in obtaining the guidelines published by IMO on alternate methods for lifeboat drills on MODUs, follow this link.

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