“VTS, THIS IS TANKER ALBION. WE HAVE HAD AN EXPLOSION IN THE PUMP ROOM. THERE IS A FIRE THERE. TWO CREW MISSING. WE HAVE ANCHORED CLEAR OF THE NAVIGATION CHANNEL “
This was the opening move in an exercise held last week in Southampton Water. Tests of the Solfire plan take place at regular intervals, but it is only once in every six years that a ‘live’ exercise is carried out. On this occasion the bunker vessel Whitchallenger acted the part of the casualty. Other ‘actors’ included Svitzer Sarah, a tug equipped with fire hydrants, RNLl lifeboats, and police and harbour launches. Numerous fire engines appeared on the Docks too.
It was presumed that VTS (The Vessel Traffic Service which monitors all ship movement in Southampton port area and its approach) had called a SolfireB incident, implying that they would require supporting assistance. Coastguard at Lee on Solent was notified and took charge of Search and Rescue resources. The fire brigade were alerted and moved appropriate equipment to the docks. Meanwhile, representatives of the police, Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Hampshire Fire and Rescue service, and the Hampshire Ambulance Service all gathered in the Marine Incident Control Room kept standing by in the port VTS building. As required by the plan, police chaired the proceedings, releasing the harbourmaster to attend to urgent needs.
“VTS, THIS IS ALBION. ANCHOR DRAGGING….` The scenario slowly developed. The fire tug was despatched to stand by the casualty. The pilot cutter took 2 senior firemen to the ship to assess needs on board. Eventually a team with necessary portable equipment was despatched. A decision was taken to bring the tanker alongside to make it easier to fight the fire.
For some of the firemen involved it was their first experience of working in the confined spares of a ship.
Many other lessons were learned, or relearned. It came as no surprise that the main lessons related to communication issues. Some were surprisingly basic. For example, incident notification by fax was not completely successful. The world has moved on. Messages by email or SMS are more likely to work today. The plan will need changing!
Analysing the exercise later, a number of issues were identified, but the main objectives were judged to have been achieved.
Of course, the incident scenario could have been worse. But in a real situation where the fire was not brought quickly under control, or where oil started leaking from the ship, then the incident would have been upgraded to SolfireC, and additional powers and resources available to the MCA would have come into play. Maybe that is a scenario for a future exercise.
SPS was invited to observe the exercise. It is good to be able to let Solent users and residents know that such plans exist and are regularly tested. However, VTS is to be relocated within a year, and Lee on Solent Coastguard will close in September. Neither event should make a significant difference except that the new Coastguard HQ at Fareham may offer some useful extra resources. It opens in September 2014. An exercise to test all the new facilities Sometime in 2015 would seem to be indicated.
We are aware that other emergency plans to deal with Solent incidents exist, including plans to deal with oil (or other pollutant) spills and nuclear accident. Southampton is also the home of Oil Spill Response Ltd, which holds the national stock of materials for dealing with spills. We hope to add a section to our “How the Solent works” section of our website soon.
For more information about Search and Rescue resources click here. For details of proposed Coastguard changes, click here. Note that on January 22nd Geoff Matthews, who is managing the move to the new Coastguard facility at Fareham will be giving a talk about the changes. Click here for details and to book your place.