Call to upgrade rescue beacons

Offshore helicopter operators have been urged to get a move on with an important safety upgrade after the reintroduction of a potentially life-saving piece of kit was delayed.

Offshore helicopter operators have been urged to get a move on with an important safety upgrade after the reintroduction of a potentially life-saving piece of kit was delayed.

Personal locator beacons (PLBs), which were issued to North Sea workers during transfer flights, were withdrawn after the devices interfered with rescue equipment after a Super Puma ditched off the Scottish coast in February.

The thousands of offshore workers based in East Anglia, who fly from heliports in Norwich and Yarmouth, have now been told that the reissue of the individual locators has suffered a setback.

Officials from the UK offshore oil and gas industry spoke of their disappointment yesterday following the news that the end of July timeframe for reintroducing PLBs had slipped back.

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It comes after a helicopter carrying a crew of 18 crashed in the North Sea whilst approaching an oil platform on February 18. All of the pilots and passengers were rescued. However, the low-strength signals of the personal beacons caused the long-range rescue beacons on the helicopter's emergency life raft to shut down.

An Air Accidents Investigation Branch report will today reveal that it took rescuers almost 30 minutes to locate the crew because of the signal problem 150 miles off the Aberdeen coast.

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The interference caused the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to withdraw the PLBs in March - an issue that appeared to have been resolved earlier this month after operators and industry officials agreed to replace the fleet of “smart technology” life raft beacons with “non-smart” ones.

But officials from Oil and Gas UK, which represents the industry, yesterday said they did not know when PLBs - a vital life-saving device for stranded offshore workers - would be reintroduced.

Britta Hallbauer, spokeswoman for the trade association, said helicopter operators were currently establishing how many life rafts needed to be updated and the number of replacement beacons available.

“The industry has stated that it sees the reintroduction of personal beacons as a matter of urgency and we had hoped it would be the end of July. If something happens in the sea, it is helpful to have.”

“We do not know how long it will take to change the beacons on the life rafts. We are disappointed it has slipped a little, but obviously we have to do it the right way and we have to find a solution,” she said.

Industry experts stressed that the absence of lifejacket or wristwatch PLBs would have made no difference in the crash of a Super Puma aircraft on April 1 that led to the death of Norfolk offshore worker Nolan Goble and 15 of his colleagues.

A spokesman for the CAA added: “Obviously our prime concern is to ensure safety standards are maintained for the interests of all concerned. The implementation of the new beacons is now a matter for the industry.”

Around 80 workers a day fly from CHC Scotia's heliport at North Denes, Yarmouth, with a similar number using the Bristow helicopter base at Norwich Airport.

A spokeswoman for CHC Scotia said that not all offshore workers wore PLBs and the issuing of the devices was down to the oil and gas companies. No one was available for comment from Bristow yesterday.

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