One manufacturer of covered lifeboats is the Marine Safety Equipment Corp., a 70-employee firm in Farmingdale, N.J. Sales manager Fred DeSepio expressed respect for the Whittaker capsule, saying of it and his firm's covered lifeboats: "Each has its own set of advantages . . . They'll both do the job equally; you can't say one is better than the other safety-wise."
The New Jersey firm's biggest covered lifeboat is a 30-foot model that holds 64 people and costs $90,000. The company makes about 100 covered lifeboats a year, but business has "slowed up an awful lot because of the (declining) offshore (oil) industry," DeSepio said.
Whittaker may soon face competition from an entirely new technology from Norway. A company there is introducing to U.S. markets a new kind of escape device for oil rigs. The unit drops a covered lifeboat down skids--like a children's slide, said Burt Crawford, former director of human resources for the Houston-based International Assn. of Drilling Contractors.
Crawford said he has personally tested all three basic escape devices--the Whittaker capsule, regular covered lifeboats and the Norwegian innovation--and prefers the latter because it drops the lifeboat into the water a safe distance from the rig. That's better than covered lifeboats or survival capsules, which are lowered down the side of the rig and thereby face an added risk in storms because "the waves can beat you up against the rig," Crawford said.
Still, the Whittaker survival capsules have become a common site on many offshore oil rigs, said Edwin McGhee, the executive vice president of the drilling contractors association.
But the capsules aren't a panacea: "There are still things that go on out there that these things (survival capsules) don't provide an answer to," McGhee added. "So there's a search on for other devices that will solve all the problems. We haven't gotten there yet."