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Cold hands could mean life or death


Testing the cold-water limits.


By Michelle Osmond


Scott MacKinnon likes to push people to the limit. Some of his research involves inducing motion sickness and dunking volunteers into cold water to see if they can perform safety and survival tasks – all in the name of science.

Prompted by the Cougar helicopter crash in March 2009 and the subsequent inquiry, Professor MacKinnon and his team started a project to try and answer some of the questions around escape and evacuation that came out of that inquiry: Can people do this in cold water? Is it even possible? Will they have the strength and the dexterity?

“Our team proposed this research program to Petroleum Research Atlantic Canada (PRAC). We have the facilities and could answer some industry and regulatory questions almost immediately,” said Dr. MacKinnon, who teaches in the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation. “The results could help manufacturers, trainers and regulators solve the problems associated with escaping and surviving in cold water, which, in turn, could mean life or death.”

Dr. MacKinnon and his team are using a temperature regulated immersion tank in HKR school; a fish hold which was taken from an old fishing boat. The first phase of this research is about survival once they have escaped the helicopter. It involves simulated swimming away from the crash site, turning on their emergency locator beacon, putting on a spray shield, and then putting on thermal protective gloves – all while immersed in water and wearing a survival suit. For comparison, subjects were tested in both four and 20 degree Celsius water. Preliminary results, said Dr. MacKinnon, show that the participants were successful in completing these tasks in the required time.

The second phase, which is expected to be completed in the fall, is about escaping. A mock up of a helicopter seat and window will be fabricated in the tank. Subjects, who are seated and underwater from the neck down, need to activate the helicopter underwater escape breathing apparatus (HUEBA), punch out a window, unlatch their seat harness and get out. This part will be done in both daylight, and dark using blackout goggles.

Dr. MacKinnon has teamed up with researchers at the National Research Council’s Institute for Ocean Technology, the Marine Institute, Virtual Marine Technology and the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science to undertake several large research projects related to escape, evacuation, survival and rescue (EESR) in harsh environments.

“St. John’s has a considerable research cluster and a growing expertise in offshore safety, survival and training. This has attracted attention from oil and shipping companies, and often regulatory bodies and classification societies looking to this group for advice and guidance,” he said. “Survival in cold water will become even more relevant as exploration in the Arctic opens up. Even how long it will take us to get to a crew to rescue them, assuming they’ve managed to escape, is an issue. Help could be a long ways away.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done to make sure people come home safe and sound.”
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