Senior Public Affairs Officer
Lizette Roldan, a health physicist in the NRC’s Region IV office, is not particularly fond of the water. But when duty called, she took a deep breath, steeled her nerves and underwent training on how to escape from a sinking helicopter in order to participate in a specialized inspection program.
“I’m actually pretty terrified of the water, but I refuse to live in fear,” said Roldan, a tri-athlete who runs three to five miles daily to stay in shape. “I saw this as a challenge that I could overcome.”
Roldan is one of three Region IV health physicists who periodically fly by helicopter to inspect oil rigs in offshore federal waters on behalf of the agency. Rick Munoz and James Thompson have also performed offshore inspections.
Although the inspection procedures are similar for both land-based and offshore locations, the offshore inspection program requires special training designed to teach basic aviation safety awareness and emergency egress procedures from helicopters that crash into the ocean.
The periodic inspections are coordinated with U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which provides helicopter transportation to offshore platforms and barges laying underwater piping in the Gulf of Mexico.
Most offshore inspections are of short duration but inspectors may occasionally be required to stay overnight on the platforms for a variety of reasons (weather, helicopter availability, extended monitoring). The scope of inspection activities on offshore facilities normally involves the inspection of Agreement State licensees working in federal waters under reciprocity agreements.
Roldan underwent her Helicopter Underwater Egress Training at a special facility in Louisiana where she and three other trainees were strapped into the cockpit of a helicopter simulator that was dunked four times into a large swimming pool.
“I focus on remaining calm, that’s the most important thing,” Roldan recalled.
The first dunking was the easiest.
“I watched water fill the helicopter cockpit as it was lowered into the pool, took a deep breath, unhooked my seat belt and with the three other trainees swam out of an ‘open’ window to escape,” she said.
Then it got harder. The weight of a helicopter motor and its rotor means the helicopter will likely turn upside down when sinking. The second dunking required escape from the submerged and inverted helicopter through a window that had to be opened from the inside. The exercise escalated to having to coordinate escape from the submerged inverted helicopter with three other trainees. It’s scary, but safe. Scuba divers are present during the tests to ensure the safety of the trainees.
Roldan also had to learn how to survive a fire on an oil platform by jumping into the sea, show she could tread water for five minutes, form a “survival circle” with others while awaiting rescue and fight off sharks by kicking them in their snouts.
Obviously, for these special NRC inspectors, it’s not just another day in the office.