Marine surveyors helping to save lives at sea… behind the scenes at the RNLI

One of the RNLI Shannon class vessels undergoing inspection
One of the RNLI Shannon class vessels undergoing inspection

The IIMS Small Craft Working Group joined the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s (RNLI) annual surveyor training conference. Following a detailed tour around the RNLI facility in Poole, the combined group of approaching 50 surveyors listened to a series of presentations and had the chance to network and share ideas amongst themselves. Both RNLI and IIMS felt the occasion was a great success and expressed a desire for the two organisations to work more closely together. As a direct result of that recent gathering, IIMS invited RNLI to write an article. Andrew Squibb MEng AMRINA AMIMarEST, Technical Surveyor RNLI picks up the story.

About The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI)

The RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea in the UK. It provides a 24-hour search and rescue service to 100 nautical miles out from the coast of the UK and Republic of Ireland, along with a lifeguard service on over 220 UK and Channel Island beaches. The charity also operates 4 lifeboat stations on the River Thames.

There are 237 RNLI lifeboat stations operating 349 lifeboats; 128 all-weather lifeboats (ALBs) and 221 inshore lifeboats (ILBs). There are a further 108 lifeboats in the relief fleet.

In 2015 the RNLI’s lifeboat crews undertook 8,228 launches (an average of 23 per day), rescued 7,973 people and saved 348 lives, while the charity’s lifeguards responded to 15,714 incidents, helping 18,181 people and saving 94 lives.

RNLI lifeboat crew members are on-call 24/7, 365 days a year. Most have a full-time day job, but they carry a pager and, when it goes off, they rush to the lifeboat station and launch the lifeboat to rescue those in danger.

It’s vital that the RNLI provides its brave volunteer crews with reliable, safe boats and equipment. The RNLI’s team of marine surveyors, or Technical Surveyors as they are known, play a big part in achieving this.

RNLI Technical Surveyors have two core roles:
• To survey existing ALBs and launching equipment, to assess any maintenance or repair work required
• To lead new build, refit and major repair projects to ensure they are delivered to the right quality, deadline and cost.

Who are the RNLI Technical Surveyors?

The RNLI has a team of 13 Technical Surveyors based across the UK and Republic of Ireland, working to ensure the safety of its volunteers and those they rescue.

The RNLI surveyor’s job is demanding but rewarding, involving frequent travel and working closely with RNLI coast staff, crews and contractors throughout the UK and Republic of Ireland. In total, the surveyors oversee around 300 projects per year.

The surveying team works remotely, co-ordinated from the RNLI Headquarters in Poole. Work is allocated to particular surveyors based both on its geographical location and on each surveyor’s specialist experience and knowledge.

The RNLI’s surveyors have a wide range of maritime and engineering backgrounds, creating a strong team with diverse expertise. Each surveyor has a specialisation of Hull, Machinery or Electronics, with individuals having further specialist knowledge of particular materials, structures or techniques.

New RNLI surveyors complete a formal distance-learning diploma in marine surveying, building on their existing experience and ensuring their knowledge of survey methods and industry standards is up to date. New starters are also paired up with experienced surveyors to gain in-depth knowledge of RNLI boats, processes and equipment. Formal and informal training continues throughout a surveyor’s career, both to improve specialist knowledge for particular projects and to keep abreast of technological and other developments.

Technical Surveyors work on every class of ALB (Severn, Trent, Tamar, Shannon, Mersey and Tyne) and every type of mobile launch and recovery equipment. This includes over 30 types of powered and unpowered vehicles, ranging from the Shannon Launch & Recovery System to Rescue Water Craft (RWC) launch trolleys. They also work on E-class lifeboats (used on the River Thames), hovercraft and RWCs. Specialist surveyors also oversee the programmes for ALB engine and electronics overhaul.

Survey work

ALB refit cycles have evolved over the last 15 years, moving away from traditional calendar-based maintenance towards Condition-Based Maintenance (CBM):

Before the introduction of CBM a refit would entail extensively stripping a boat and overhauling/repainting every part, regardless of condition. Modern non-destructive examination equipment and instant digital communication now make it viable to assess a boat’s condition in advance and to tailor the work accordingly. However, the “Mark I eyeball” and the surveyor’s skill and knowledge are still central to the process. The current CBM survey and refit intervals were established from Failure Mode, Effect & Criticality Analysis (FMECA – a formal method of identifying particular failure risks) by teams drawn from across the RNLI.

CBM surveys include the following:
• Lightship survey
• Structural inspection (for both structural and watertight integrity) – visual, tap testing, non-destructive examination in some cases (e.g. shearography)
• Paint/coating condition, against agreed standards
• Haul-out (if a scheduled haul-out coincides with survey dates)
• Sea trials
• Vibration analysis
• Vulkan coupling deflection
• Decibel level readings
• Thermal imaging
electrical systems
• Speed trial: both engines & single engine running
• All systems tested & checked off using standard trials checklist

CBM surveys are usually performed at station, in co-operation with local coast staff and the station crew. They typically require two surveyors, hull and machinery, and take a full week including travel.

The surveyors record their findings on a standard spreadsheet, giving each item a condition rating and recommending any action needed. Following a 6-year CBM survey, the surveyors will also use their findings to write the specification for the next refit.

Each defect found is also recorded on the RNLI’s database and remedial action agreed; many minor defects can be rectified locally, but equally some apparently minor repairs need more controlled conditions than can be achieved on station.

Refit cycles for launch and recovery (L&R) equipment vary depending on type. RNLI coastal staff carry out regular condition inspections of L&R plant, but in some instances surveyors are asked to assess the condition of in-service L&R vehicles. The surveyor will also perform a full condition inspection of components after a vehicle has been stripped down for refit.

Technical Surveyors also perform any other surveys required on ALBs and L&R equipment, for instance following damage. The surveyors write a report of every survey for planning staff at the RNLI HQ in Poole, including the details and urgency of any repairs or refurbishment required. This enables the work to be scheduled and arranged, including relief fleet movements if necessary.

Project management

The RNLI All-Weather Lifeboat facility in Poole, Dorset
The RNLI All-Weather Lifeboat facility in Poole, Dorset

Wherever possible, the RNLI’s coast staff arrange maintenance and repairs on station or (for L&R vehicles etc.) at the local Regional Base. This minimises cost, off-service time and the need for relief fleet cover.

However, more major work requires specialist facilities; either the RNLI’s own All-Weather Lifeboat Centre (ALC), or external contractors. Technical Surveyors oversee these projects – major repairs, planned refits and new builds. ALB projects are generally allocated two surveyors, most L&R projects one.

The surveyor’s involvement begins once a contract is placed for a new build, refit or repair. The RNLI HQ staff formally hand over the project at this point and the surveyor (or the designated lead surveyor, if two are allocated) takes responsibility for delivering it.

From now on the surveyor is the main point of contact between the RNLI and the contractor. They monitor quality and progress through site visits, inspections and meetings, make technical and commercial decisions, resolve queries (via other RNLI teams if necessary) and finally accept the finished work on behalf of the RNLI.

The overall rate of new build and refit projects is dictated by the RNLI business plan, with steady-state “lines” set up wherever possible to maximise efficiency. This means that each “slot” for a steady-state build or refit is of a fixed duration; for instance new Shannon ALB’s are delivered from ALC at a rate of 6 per year, while refit duration for a Severn class is 14 weeks.

A typical week for an RNLI surveyor

The breadth of work undertaken by RNLI surveyors means that there is almost no such thing as a typical week – the variety, both in the nature and location of the work, is one of the attractions of the job. The work at a given time depends on the mix of projects in progress.

Although efforts are made to minimise travel and keep surveyors within regions relatively close to where they live, the need for specialist knowledge on many projects means most surveyors cover long distances and require frequent nights away from home.

Some tasks, e.g. a CBM survey or acceptance of an ALB refit, are a full week’s work in themselves. Others, say project progress meetings and certain L&R inspections, may only require a day – but there can be a succession of these in different parts of the country! When not travelling, the RNLI surveyor’s job consists mostly of project management by phone and email.

In Conclusion

Despite their geographical spread, the RNLI’s surveyors form a close-knit team. This not only helps to make the job enjoyable, but also allows knowledge and ideas for improvement to be shared very rapidly. Like all RNLI staff, the surveyors take great pride in the charity and its work.

Click for more information about the Royal National Lifeboat Institution web site.

Article written by Andrew Squibb

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