Move to stop submarine disasters with Navy safety reforms

December 26, 2008, The Australian - THE Royal Australian Navy has ordered sweeping new emergency procedures to avoid a Kursk-style submarine disaster, following the near-loss of the HMAS Dechaineux and its 55 crew.

The moves, which include revamped command procedures and hi-tech sensors, valves and emergency buttons, are aimed at stemming an on-board flood within seconds, before it overwhelms the crew.

They are the culmination of detailed studies into the Dechaineux accident off Perth in February 12, 2003, revealed in The Weekend Australian three years ago, during which more than 12,000 litres of water flooded into the submarine in seconds, almost causing it to sink to the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

The accident nearly drowned a submariner, Geordie Bunting, and forced commanders to permanently restrict the diving depth of its Collins Class fleet, undermining its operational effectiveness.

The loss of the Dechaineux would have been the worst submarine disaster since Russian submarine the Kursk sank in the Barents Sea in August 2000 with the loss of all 118 crew members.

Collins Class Submarine, HMAS Dechainuex coming into Fleet Base West, HMAS Stirling, Perth, Western Australia. HMAS Sheean in the background. @RAN

For the first time, the navy has revealed the full package of measures it is taking to prevent a repeat of the Dechaineux flood.

"Following the HMAS Dechaineux flooding incident, investigations have focused on shortening the reaction time to a flood and improving resistance to flooding," a defence spokesman told The Australian.

"These improvements include revised emergency procedures, the fitting of additional sensors to warn of potential flooding, the development of a system that can simultaneously shut all critical hull valves, and replacing the original flexible hoses.

"The submarines are being modified progressively as their operational and maintenance availabilities allow."

The new safety procedures are a rare piece of good news for the submarine fleet, whose operations have been severely undermined this year by a 36per cent shortfall in crew numbers.

The Dechaineux accident occurred when a flexible seawater hose broke in the lower motor room while the submarine was at its deepest diving depth, causing seawater to flood in.

The alarm was passed on to the control room via shouts of "flooding" over the intercom and then the captain's order was given to shut all the hull's external valves.

Naval investigators concluded this procedure was too cumbersome and could prove fatal in another major flood, where seconds could make the difference between life and death.

New sensors are being installed for early flood detection, while flood-alert push-buttons are being placed in bilge areas so crew do not have to run to broadcast stations.

When a flood is detected, a new automated system can instantly and automatically shut all external valves.

"This automation removes valuable seconds required for the crew to detect and react to floods," a spokesman said.
New rules have also been introduced to allow console operators in the control room to enact emergency procedures instantly in case of a flood without waiting for the captain's orders.

Despite these safety improvements, the navy will have to wait 18 months until it gets flexible hoses to replace the type that failed on the Dechaineux.
The hoses were ordered early last year but are still being put through laboratory tests by their manufacturer, Oil State Industries in Texas.

If the new hoses prove successful, the navy is expected to revisit the limitations of diving depth it imposed on the fleet after the Dechaineux incident. The submarines' deep diving depth is classified.(Cameron Stewart)


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