The Magazine for Underwater Professionals

Jan/Feb 2016


The development of a global hyperbaric rescue service

Plans for a global hyperbaric rescue service have received positive feedback and encouragement from diving contractors and oil and gas operators alike, writes Brian Redden

Figure 1. The whole of the mid and southern North Sea areas can be covered by two davit LARS

Man has been diving into the ocean, river and lake waters of the world for millennia, for reasons ranging from harvesting its wealth for food (like spear fishing), for gain (like pearl diving) to military actions (like the frogman), or doing it for fun (like scuba diving) and finally the all-including term of commercial diving. Wikipedia defines commercial diving as activities where divers are paid for their work.


Civil engineering diving encompassing construction and maintenance of naval harbour bases and commercial ports started more or less at the turn of the 20th century following the industrial revolution.


The first commercial saturation diving operations in support of oil and gas exploration and production began some 40 years ago. For the first 20 years, nobody asked the question “what happens to the divers in saturation during an emergency evacuation?”


The issue started to be addressed around 20 years ago when HRC (hyperbaric rescue chambers) were introduced. This at least offered the divers, who were previously bound within the confines of saturation, with an escape route. Improvements continued to be made and the introduction of SPHLs (self-propelled hyperbaric lifeboats) meant that the divers could now safely escape and distance themselves from the danger of the vessel. Today, virtually all global saturation diving operations provide a contingency plan for diver evacuation either within a HRC or SPHL which have a minimum of 72 hours life support.


The first formal guidelines covering saturation diving were introduced in the early 1990s by IMO1 followed by IMCA2 and in 2014 the IOGP DOsC3 Report No 478 which lays out the performance requirements for emergency hyperbaric evacuation.


However, as welcome as these developments have been, the diving industry has, to date, turned a blind eye with regard to how the SPHL gets to a safe haven following its launch.


A SPHL can, in theory, make its own way to port, however this is dependent on everything going ‘to plan’ and travelling at a consistent (and its maximum) six knots. The realities of a catastrophic event are that “sod’s law” will kick in and, for instance, difficult weather conditions could mean the lifeboat is forced backwards away from safety. The fact is that the likelihood of the SPHL somehow getting itself to a port to be mated to a hyperbaric reception facility (HRF) within 72 hours is optimistic and in reality is highly unlikely.


United Kingdom-based JFD has identified this shortfall and introduced a solution.


The solution

JFD is establishing a global hyperbaric rescue service (GHRS) and one element of this service will be SPHL recovery (SPHL-R). The SPHL-R service will:

  • deploy the proven JFD/Caley, UK, designed davit launch and recovery system (LARS) from pre-engineered rapid response vessels of opportunity (VoO)
  • safely lift one or two hyperbaric lifeboats from the water
  • transport them to their HEP (hyperbaric evacuation plan) designated HRF
  • transfer the divers into a decompression chamber in the HRF, where medical staff can treat any physical injuries and they can start their decompression in a controlled and safe environment.

This will all be accomplished well within the 54 hours’ time frame stipulated by the industry guidelines.


The SPHL-R service will be operated in conjunction with JFD’s submarine rescue service – provided globally for five navies over the past 31 years. The GHRS and its SPHL-R service will include all the assets, people and support needed to ensure a solution is available for all saturation diving operations.


JFD will ultimately work closely with the diving contractors in all the saturation diving regions of the world to standardise HEPs and effect asset sharing and partnering, thereby eliminating duplication of HRF and life support package (LSP) provision and providing a broad and cost-effective global solution.


An example: the UK North Sea SPHL-R service

Using the UK North Sea as an example, the whole of the mid and southern North Sea areas can be covered by two davit LARS, as shown in Figure 1. In the event of an SPHL launch, a pre-identified VoO will respond within one hour of the call. All VoOs will be pre-engineered to accept the davit LARS and a LSP on deck and be ready to put to sea within 13 hours, after installation and full load tests.


The SPHL-R guaranteed total time to first rescue (TTFR) anywhere in the mid and southern North Sea areas will be no more than 32 hours.


The davit LARS have the capability to lift up to two 24-man SPHLs on board in weather conditions up to sea state 6. Once the SPHLs are safely on board, the VoOs can make full speed journeys back to the designated port and HRF.


It is worth noting that the davit LARS have been proven in operation. A number of systems are in service with the Canadian Coast Guard which uses them to deploy workboats of up to 12 metres LOA and gross weight up to 28 tonnes.


The SPHL-R model will be replicatable across the world, ensuring every diving operation has access to the same level of rescue services.

  • The system is deployed to a pre-engineered vessel
  • The SPHL(s) can be recovered from the water up to sea state 6
  • On arrival at the quayside, the SPHL is either lifted onto a portable HRF or transported to the HRF at the NHC
  • Once locked onto the HRF, the divers can be safely medically treated and decompressed

Why JFD?

The synergies between military submarine rescue and commercial diving hyperbaric rescue are obvious, making JFD the ideal organisation to provide both.


JFD is a part of the 165-year-old James Fisher & Sons plc Group, UK, a leading service provider to all sections of the global marine industry and a specialist supplier of engineering services to the energy and other high assurance industries with worldwide turnover in 2014 of £400 million-plus.


JFD was formed in 2015 by bringing together four companies, the National Hyperbaric Centre (NHC), UK, Divex, UK, James Fisher Defence, UK, and Defence Consulting Europe (DCE), Sweden. The company employs more than 400 people and is involved in all aspects of the design, manufacture, maintenance and operation of subsea equipment.


JFD’s SMERAS (Submarine Escape, Rescue, Abandonment and Survival) service provides assets, people and support to the Submarine Search and Rescue Authority (SSRA) in the event of a submarine accident to ensure a successful recovery operation anywhere in the world.


The JFD submarine rescue service provides a complete rescue package within a guaranteed notice period. For a monthly fee, JFD is totally responsible for:

  • equipment provision
  • personnel
  • assurance
  • technical support
  • maintenance
  • training.


The JFD global hyperbaric rescue service will also use this service model, calling on the submarine rescue personnel and system where the synergies exist, but with the added dimension of working with IOGP members, VoO owners and diving contractors worldwide to share and manage their HRF/LSP assets.


JFD’s global hyperbaric rescue service strategy encompasses:

  • a hyperbaric rescue service covering each of the geographic regions of the world where saturation diving in support of oil and gas exploration and production takes place
  • LSP and SPHL-R davit LARS assets strategically located to give cover to the whole area whilst reducing duplication
  • strategically positioning portable HRFs offering coverage around areas where fixed facilities are not available
  • standardisation of hyperbaric evacuation plans
  • vessel of opportunity system (vessels suitable as VoOs identified and vetted; emergency call-out/chartering agreements made; pre-engineering for the davit LARS and LSP quick-mobilisation; call-out process agreed with all stakeholders; and vessel registered on JFD GHRS VoO internet tracking system)
  • standardisation of HRF and LSP interfaces
  • standardised medical/decompression intervention (supported by JFD specialist medical support partners International SOS)
  • maintenance of a global HRF and LSP database.



The payback for those diving contractors putting their HRF/LSP assets into the JFD managed GHRS equipment pool is four-fold:

  • reduced overhead, not having to maintain and operate the HRF/LSP assets
  • reduced contract OPEX, paying only for HRF services as and when they are used
  • revenue income for HRF/LSP assets used by the JFD GHRS equipment pool, which will invariably be higher utilisation than on own contracts only
  • reduced contract OPEX in that JFD will write the hyperbaric evacuation plan.


JFD has already presented the GHRS plans at a variety of industry events, receiving positive feedback and encouragement from diving contractors and oil and gas operators alike.


1International Maritime Organisation resolution A.692(17) of 6th November 1991. 2International Marine Contractors Association Guidelines D051, D052 & D053. 3IOGP Diving Sub-committee

BGR's story

Brian G. Redden (known as BGR), JFD director of Hyperbaric Rescue Services, has first-hand experience of being left trapped under pressure in a diver decompression chamber (DDC) whilst the dive support vessel was abandoned.


BGR was a member of the dive crew on board the DSV Arctic Surveyor in the mid-1970s on her maiden voyage. The Arctic Surveyor was a brand new vessel with a huge ‘H’ configuration dive system, which had an additional smaller DDC bolted on one end which was the designated ‘rescue chamber’. The DDC complex was built in below the main deck, surrounded by the air and oxygen quads needed to support the diving campaign. A quad is a steel frame holding 20 high-pressure gas bottles, with the bottles’ neck valves linked together by a ‘spider’ of flexible hose. This was Arctic Surveyor's first job and the owners had been pushing everyone hard to get the boat out to work.

  • DSV Arctic Surveyor

The work programme was to carry out visual inspection of the Ekofisk to Emden gas pipeline in the mid-North Sea area where the water depth was around 80 feet (24 metres). The divers were ‘air bell bounce diving’, where two divers were lowered to just above the seabed in the diving bell, at atmospheric pressure. Once in position, the bell was blown down (pressurised) to bottom depth. Usually, the diver would be all dressed in ready to go and be standing on the bottom door. When the bottom depth was reached the pressure would equalise and the door would drop open depositing the diver out to work.


At the time of the incident, BGR and his bell partner, Bob Edmundson, were in the main chamber complex at 60 feet (18 metres) starting their AirSurDO2 (surface decompression using oxygen) schedule, having just locked through down into the DDC from the top mount diving bell, after finishing their stint on the seabed.



Brian and Bob tried to get oxygen flow to the BIBS (built-in breathing system) masks, however no gas was coming through, so they asked dive control to check it had been put on line. BGR watched through the port hole as one of the “baby divers” on board went up to the O2 distribution panel and involuntarily winced as he saw the young guy “whang” open the main O2 valve to the pressure regulator – an experienced hand would always treat high pressure oxygen with more caution. In the instant that these thoughts flashed through BGR’s head, the young diver was blown off his feet and thrown backwards about ten feet as the high pressure oxygen was ignited by swage in the piping and the regulator exploded. The fire flashed back through the spider to the necks of the ten O2 bottles that were open, so there were now ten HP O2 flame throwers directed towards the rescue chamber in which the other two divers were about half way through their decompression. Before the young diver was on his feet and running back toward dive control, BGR had reported “we have a problem Houston!” (with a chuckle as he had always wanted to say that in a real emergency). When the ship’s crew answered the fire siren and went to don their emergency breathing apparatus (BA) sets, they found none on board had been charged up. They then tried the fire extinguishers and found none had been filled. The next option was to pull out the ships fire hoses, however they could not get any water to them, finding out later that the hull blanking plate on the seawater intake was still in place.


With the whole vessel now full of black choking smoke, the captain had no choice but to order abandon ship. The last communication the divers had from dive control was about five minutes into the fire when the dive supervisor advised they were being forced to leave the shack as it was full of smoke. The divers were now alone, trapped in the DDC complex, with the fire raging.


Looking through the viewport, Brian and Bob could see that the insulation had been burned off the rescue chamber where the other two divers were and its metal was glowing “cherry red”. They quickly realised that they needed to get their mates into the main DDC. When they went to the rescue chamber door they found the two other guys had the same idea as they had already opened the door valves to start equalising pressure. It took “what seemed like a very long ten minutes”, but when the pressure was equalised their colleagues quickly transferred through into the living chamber and slammed shut and dogged the rescue chamber door behind them.


The four of them methodically started checking out their options. The first and most obvious was to isolate the chamber furthest away from the fire and open the exhaust valves to vent the pressure back to atmospheric, so they could open the outer door to get out and up to the deck above to safety. They figured they would probably be ‘bent’ but “better that than stay and fry”.


However, they then discovered the first of the horrific realities they were to realise in the next few minutes – there were no inner doors in the DDC complex, other than the one to the rescue chamber and neither of the two outer doors had equalisation valves fitted; and there were no exhaust valves fitted on the inside skin of the DDC where they were located, so there was no way they could vent off the pressure.



So, the next option was to open the vent valves on the door in the bell trunking, to vent the system (they started to do this but soon realised that because of the volume of the DDC complex and the small diameter of the vent valve it would take at least 30 hours to vent the system back to atmosphere).


They realised their last option was to blow the DDC complex down from the 60 feet it was at to more than 80 feet. Their concern was that if the fire burned through the ship’s hull and she sank, when the vessel got deeper than 60 feet it would flood and they would drown.


However, as there were no valves at all on the DDC inner skin, they had no way to blow the system down.


After about 20 minutes of methodically going through every escape possibility, the four divers concluded they were out of options and that if the ship sank they would be dead. Shortly after that, the lights went out.


Four long hours later, with the ship still full of smoke, they heard a muffled voice on the DDC speakers asking in a Norwegian accent if they were okay. When they responded, the voice gave a loud “yippee” and told them he was on board with some fire extinguishers and was going to fight the fire and get them out.


Ten minutes later their lights came back on and they were told the fire was under control and to don the BIBS masks as their decompression schedule was re-starting. Just less than one hour later they were on deck breathing fresh air.


The Norwegian dive superintendent Idolf Asserson had defied orders and thrown a number of BA sets and fire extinguishers into a Zodiac and single handedly returned to the ship to fight the fire.

  • BGR during his North Sea diving days

After the fire the vessel made its way to Lübeck where an enquiry was held. The incident received little publicity; however, it led to a lot of changes in diving and DSV design. Oxygen now has to be stored in open air at deck level. A DDC complex must have isolating doors between compartments. All hull penetrators with valves on the external skin must have another on the internal side. Extensive pre-dive checklists must be completed. Diver training includes learning about ‘O2 cleaning’ of all pipe runs before use and how to treat HP O2 with respect. In a trial in port the ‘rescue chamber launch’ was timed. It took a full team of people and the ship’s crane some three hours to unlatch the chamber from the complex, manoeuvre it into launch position, open the hatchway and lift it out over the side into the water.


Brian, Bob and their fellow divers were extremely lucky to be rescued. The outcome could easily have been different.


BGR is now passionate about improving hyperbaric rescue. His years of experience working in the diving industry has given him an understanding of the processes, procedures and day to day realities of working offshore, working under both commercial and physical pressure. Now he has joined JFD, he has the backing of a global organisation which shares this passion. He will be managing the development of the GHRS initiative – a step change in safety for the global commercial diving industry.





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