A maritime emergency is developing early at daybreak in the waters immediately surrounding the London Array offshore wind farm. Sited at the extremes of the Thames Estuary around the southeast coast of the United Kingdom, the London Array contains 175 Siemens wind turbines covering an area of 100 km². It has recently become the world’s largest offshore wind farm.
The cruise ship THV Patricia carrying 61 passengers and crew has lost power and collided with the London Array accommodation ship Wind Ambition, which houses another 119 service engineers and personnel. As a result of the collision, both ships have fires below decks and there are reports of people overboard, as well as casualties on one or both of the vessels. Furthermore, the Patricia now looks set to drift into one of the wind turbines on the edge of the farm.
Welcome to Guardex 2012, a multi-agency, international search and rescue (SAR) exercise held on Oct. 2, 2012 and coordinated by the UK’s Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA). It involved more than 500 emergency personnel, helicopters, rescue ships and necessitated the establishment of a temporary casualty/survivor support structure on land including a “survival landing point” at the port of Ramsgate and a “survival reception center” at the Winder Gardens on the sea front at Margate. Civilian and military rescue agencies were all involved in planning, which starts around one year before the exercise.
The rescue would be coordinated from the MCA’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) at Dover, a modern building high on the cliffs above the port with sweeping views of the English Channel. The brief for Guardex was to test emergency responders over four phases of the exercise.
The first phase comprised the initiation of the maritime emergency, as well as the alerting and coordination of emergency responders. Phase 2 saw the allocation and deployment of the various responders. This then moved into the recovery (Phase 3) where critically injured survivors were the first to be brought ashore by either helicopter or lifeboat and assessed, followed by the general mass of survivors. Finally, once on land the survivors and casualties were fully assessed for the experience they had just undergone, medically treated (if required) and formally identified.
For reasons of brevity, this report will focus mainly of the role and participation of the helicopters involved. The reason that helicopters can play such a vital role in an emergency scenario of this nature is that, whatever the age of the aircraft—and the RAF Sea Kings are now fairly old—they are still one of the quickest and most ubiquitous methods of transporting rescue teams into such a hazardous environment and evacuation the injured and those who remain in danger.
The three helicopters that were on call and that responded during Guardex were a British RAF Sikorsky S-61 Sea King from 22 Squadron based at Wattensham airfield, a Belgian Sea King out of Koksijde airbase on the Belgian coast and a French Navy Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin from its base at Le Touquet.
This scenario is not new to the RAF’s SAR Force as they have been developing and updating their rescue techniques in this area for at least the last five years, with papers presented and regularly at its annual SAR Conference.
The air operations would be coordinated out of the RAF’s Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Center (ARCC) based at RAF Kinloss in Scotland. One RAF representative would be present for the duration of the exercise in the Silver Cell command group that rapidly formed at the MRCC in Dover (a gold–silver–bronze command structure is used by the UK’s emergency services to establish a hierarchical command structure to coordinated command and control during major incidents).
Once the Silver Cell had assembled and began its first meeting just two hours after the emergency was received at 0700, enough information had been received regarding the scale of the incident that the cell quickly escalated it to a major maritime incident.
The role of the ARCC was now to task and assist in the coordination of all air assets with the on-scene aerial command being delegated to the RAF Sea King (Air 126). It would command and prioritize tasking for both the Belgian Air Force and French Navy helicopters.
One of the main advantages that helicopter support brings is its speed over vessels, even emergency boats such as lifeboats, which take longer to arrive unless flying becomes impossible generally due to extreme bad weather.
For the purpose of the Guardex Exercise, incidents would include potential burns victims from onboard fires, people lost overboard, a badly injured wind farm engineer located inside a wind turbine, the need to insert fire teams onto ships with fires and eventually the evacuation of casualties.
During the early stages of the emergency, two RNLI lifeboats from Margate and Ramsgate in Kent were called out, as were two from the French Coastguard stations at Calais and Dunkirk.
The brief for the rescue helicopters covered simulated and potential situations that may be encountered during such a call:
• Rescue Helicopter Tasking
• Rescue persons from water
• Rescue persons from vessel(s) and/or life rafts
• Rescue persons from wind turbines
• Multiple aircraft SAR procedures
• Air Coordination Officer (ACO) manages procedures around wind farms
• Handover of SAR duties between aircraft
• Capture of airborne imagery for debriefs
With two fires now reported onboard both of the vessels it became imperative to deliver specialist fire crews to supplement each vessel’s own firefighting team, who were judged not to be able to control the fires. These teams were collected from both the UK and French mainland and winched onboard both ships.
The exercise had also called for the search and rescue of people who had fallen overboard as a result of the collision. Unfortunately, the MRCC had not called the ARCC early in the emergency, which would have got them onto a standby footing earlier than occurred. As a result the eight overboard victims (in fact numbered dummies) were all found and recovered by lifeboats and ships in the area before the helicopters reached the exercise area.
There were actually around 40 vessels of all types around the exercise area, some of which London Array boats, and these were very quick in pulling the dummies out of the water—so fast in fact that the plan to have several dummies drift into the area of the wind farm to allow the helicopters to practice their pick-ups in this restricted area never happened. However, the first responding helicopters’ declared priority from the MRCC became the collection and insertion of the firefighting teams which in itself was a vital part of the exercise.
Subsequently the MRCC learned that there was also a serious casualty on one of the wind turbines at the edge of the wind farm. The ship Patricia, still without the power to steer, had caused the casualty, colliding with the turbine after its first collision with the accommodation ship Wind Ambition.
In order for the helicopter crew to conduct a safe and successful winching from wind farm turbines, the RAF has developed the following operating procedure:
• Nacelle should be turned 90 degrees to the wind and locked
• Blades should be feathered and locked—normally in a Y-configuration
• Nacelle doors should be opened and locked in position
• Hover should be as low as possible while maintaining a good escape route and safe separation with the nacelle in the 3 o’clock position.
However, as each rescue is dependent on external factors such as wind, visibility and light levels, each rescue will be considered on its own merits.
Entering the final couple of stages of the exercise saw the helicopters joining principally with the lifeboats in evacuating the two main ships. All rescued people were transferred to the landing point at Ramsgate then taken by road transport to the reception point.
In summary, from a negative point of view the helicopters were called in later than planned due to a slight delay in the MRCC contacting the ARCC, and none of the bodies floated into the wind farm area as they were rescued too quickly.
Positives included the successful collection and insertion of two onshore firefighting crews by different helicopters of different nationalities. Arrangements were also made for one of the foreign rescue helicopters to be vectored to refuel at Manston airfield in Kent, UK, thereby allowing it the shortest possible break in availability before re-engaging with the exercise.
Very much on the plus side was the fact that an international multi-agency, multi-asset real-time SAR exercise had been staged close to one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world—the English Channel.
Agencies of all descriptions worked together to overcome a situation that rapidly developed and required the assistance of a wide variety of specialist responders. Lessons learned are never wasted when the real thing happens.
Agencies Taking Part in Guardex 2012
Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA)
Kent Fire and Rescue
Royal Air Force (RAF)
Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI)
French Coastguard (including the Calais and Dunkirk lifeboats)
Belgian Navy (warship BSN Stern)
South East Coast Ambulance Service (SECAMB)
Kent Emergency Planners
Ramsgate Harbour authorities
UK National Health Service