Northern Maine Community College students prepare for offshore wind emergencies

Posted Dec. 08, 2010, at 1:30 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:44 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE — Thirteen students enrolled in the state’s first associate degree program for wind-power technicians recently have obtained specialized training to help them survive certain emergencies that might occur at offshore wind facilities.

The Northern Maine Community College students are now certified in helicopter underwater egress and surface vessel emergency operations, according to Wayne Kilcollins, the wind power technology instructor at NMCC.

While he acknowledged during a recent interview that offshore wind power projects may be a few years away from reality in Maine, he still felt that students in his program should be fully equipped to work on such a project by the time they graduate.

The NMCC wind power technology program instructs students in how to operate, maintain, and repair wind-turbine generators. Members of the pioneer class, who walked into the classroom in 2009, are working to become the first wind power technicians educated in New England. The inaugural class is expected to graduate this coming May.

Kilcollins said that training in surface vessel emergency operations is required by the U.S. Coast Guard for all workers on oil and natural gas platforms, and now for technicians working on offshore wind projects.

“I first heard about these additional programs when I was in Texas over the summer at a safety program,” Kilcollins said. “I knew that I wanted to offer this so that I could make the inaugural class of students even more attractive to prospective employers. I started researching a way to make it happen immediately.”

That research led Kilcollins to Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, which offers the surface vessel and helicopter emergency training. From Texas, he called officials at MMA and began to make arrangements to partner with the college to offer the courses to NMCC wind power technology students.

In recent weeks, Kilcollins and 13 of his second year students traveled to MMA to participate in classroom and hands-on training exercises to earn certifications in both surface vessel emergency operations and helicopter underwater egress training. Included were several hours of training in a pool conducting exercises to simulate what would happen in the event of a surface vessel or helicopter emergency at sea.

“I could not have been happier with the training we received,” he said. “It was so comprehensive and realistic. We spent more than four hours on just pool exercises alone.”

As part of the pool exercises, the participants jumped into the water fully clothed and had to right a 20-person life raft that had tipped over. Once they did that, they had to climb into it.

“I think the students didn’t think it would be that difficult at first,” he said. “But once they realized that if that happened at sea, they would be fully clothed in work gear and that alone made the task harder. It was very challenging.”

Students also had to learn to put on their life preserving equipment and additional safety gear while in the water, to simulate what they would need to do if they had to jump off a rig suddenly.

“That also taught them how and when to use survival gear, and how important it is not to panic,” said Kilcollins.

Another “excellent drill,” he said, was one that simulated what would happen if students were involved in a helicopter crash at sea. Two students at time where put into a rig that simulated having them trapped upside down, underwater, in a helicopter. The students had to orient themselves and find their way out of the wreckage.

“They also had a way to simulate what would happen if that helicopter crashed at night,” he said. “Then you are dealing with darkness and loss of electrical power. It was really amazing.”

One the students taking part was Scott Neimi of Lewiston.

“I was kind of nervous about being flipped upside down in the water strapped into a helicopter simulator, but it went smoothly,” Neimi said. “With the training, I’ll be better prepared to know what to do without panicking in the event of a water emergency.”

For student Jeff Hardgrove of Washburn, who also recently completed the two special course offerings, the training sessions will likely provide for opportunities closer to home. The former displaced mill worker, husband and father of two young children, spent 12 years working the night shift at Fraser Timberlands in Ashland before being laid off two years ago.

“This training will only make me more marketable,” said Hardgrove. “I would love to work offshore, preferably somewhere on the East Coast. I’d like to stay in Maine or somewhere close.”

With advance work currently underway for offshore wind test sites off the coast of Maine and the Cape Wind project off Cape Cod, Mass., currently in the permitting phase, Kilcollins is hopeful that job opportunities will be available for his students. He has spoken with officials from firms working on the Cape Wind project who have expressed a willingness to partner with NMCC on future employment and internship opportunities for students.

Kilcollins said that all of his students passed the courses and he was “very impressed” with their skills. He said he would like to offer this training to future students.

“This is not a required part of our curriculum, but for students who may end up working on offshore wind projects this would be something needed before beginning their work assignment,” he said. “It makes the students that much more marketable. It is a great addition to their resume.”

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