Ship & Boat International eNews: November/December 2021
Life Cell Marine Safety of Australia, developer of the Life Cell marine flotation device, has partnered with the National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA) of Papua New Guinea (PNG) to distribute a specially modified version of its life-saving device among the country’s small boat fleet, free of charge.
The initial pilot scheme will see 450 boats receive a Life Cell – one per vessel. Life Cell CEO Jenny Aiken tells Ship & Boat International: “If this proves to be successful, and the local people leave the Life Cell in their boats and they are accepted as part of their daily routine, then the intention is to make them available for every vessel in PNG – which would be in the order of 10,000 vessels. Essentially, all boats in PNG are the same type of banana boat, so the Life Cell has been made to be suitable for this type of vessel.”
The WHO has logged almost 74,000 deaths by drowning in the Western Pacific Region in 2019 alone. Aiken adds that an estimated 1,000 PNG residents fatally drown each year – a statistic that prompted Life Cell to sign up to the PNG-Australia Transport Sector Support Program (TSSP), supported by the Australian Government. It's hoped that the pilot scheme will assist the implementation of PNG’s Small Craft Act, which is expected to tighten up the island state’s marine safety protocols by encouraging small craft registration and the carriage of essential safety equipment.
The latter may prove a challenge: frequent attempts to encourage boat safety in PNG haven’t always met with success. “My understanding is that more than 30,000 lifejackets were previously distributed, but the local people did not leave them in their boats, and took them out to be used for other purposes,” Aiken says. “Space in these vessels, which are used for transport, fishing and going to market, is at a premuim. There can often be 14 people in these boats as well as supplies, so making room for 14 bulky lifejackets is not a high priority.”
The Life Cell functions as a waterproof ‘grab bag’ for essential safety equipment, including an EPIRB and flares and torches, but is also designed with handles, so that marine casualties can hold onto it and use it as a float – keeping persons in the water together and preventing individuals from drifting off. They come in a range of sizes, covering various boat types and differing numbers of passengers. The product can be carried into the water by hand or floated off a mounted bracket, should the vessel capsize or sink.
Following consultation with PNG’s local authorities and residents, Life Cell set about creating a new variation of the device – an enlarged version that would cause minimal disruption to daily activities. The modified PNG version is “twice the size of our current largest Life Cell”, says Aiken, measuring 1,340mm x 580mm and featuring a height of 240mm. The PNG Life Cell also comes with 14 handles, to assist as many persons on the water. “Small children or infants could be placed on top,” Life Cell says.
The PNG Life Cell has two compartments: the larger to store fish as they are caught, and the smaller to store basic safety kit. “The smaller compartment could also keep phones, food and tobacco dry,” Aiken adds. To minimise onboard disruption, this Life Cell is designed to sit in the bottom of the boat, acting as a seat for the boater and/or passengers. Typically, boats in PNG will use pallets in the boat bottoms to achieve this flat platform seating arrangement.
By not significantly disrupting the boat’s working arrangement, it’s hoped that users will keep the device on board at all times. “Any safety device needs to be simple and it needs to save lives,” says Aiken. She adds: “There is no active search and rescue in PNG, so having flares and EPIRBs is not necessarily going to help. The Life Cell is designed to keep boatowners afloat and has some basic life-saving equipment, such as a compass, whistle, V-sheet, and light stick, so they can assist themselves or notify another passing boat.”
The Life Cells are manufactured by the company’s partner in Thailand. The mould for the PNG version has been produced, and is currently awaiting approval from the NMSA. Once approval is granted, production will begin on the initial 450 units for the pilot scheme, "hopefully within the next one to two months,” says Aiken.