A dedicated team of WSP USA engineers and scientists are taking their commitment to providing thorough, accurate structural inspections to the next level.
Or perhaps more accurately, to new depths.
Frigid temperatures, murky waters and confining, uncomfortable gear are all just the norm for WSP’s dive team — a group that understands there’s simply no substitute for a hands-on, comprehensive inspection, no matter where that might lead them.
Formed in 1979 by a group of structural engineers at the firm who were also avid divers, this team inspects clients’ marine structures and provides those clients with valuable insight and guidance. It is the largest team of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. Since its inception, the team has spent more than 3,000 cumulative hours — about four months in total — conducting underwater inspections for marine projects.
“The number of design firms performing marine design is low, and the number of firms with engineer-led diving teams that provide underwater inspections is even lower,” said Mike Wray, WSP dive safety officer and a licensed civil and structural engineer.
Their work has helped WSP provide more complete service to its marine clients, and despite the difficulties that the waters and the cumbersome equipment often poses, the team loves these underwater opportunities.
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First-Hand Marine Inspections
WSP’s dive team is responsible for inspecting marine structures below water, which allows its team of professional engineers to provide a full condition assessment of the facility, identify potential damages and recommend repairs to WSP’s marine clients.
The damage inspection accounts for facility deterioration caused by age, as well vessel-impact damage or other causes stemming from the harsh marine environment. Their work covers structural visual inspections, special inspections, design, repairs, load rating, life cycle modeling and other activities.
The inspections are conducted by engineer-led teams, with a dozen active divers currently on the team, mostly on the Pacific Coast, but with three on the East Coast and one on the Gulf Coast. More than half of the divers on the team hold commercial dive licenses through the Association of Diving Contractors Inc. or Diver Certification Board of Canada, and most of them are engineers with a history of design and inspection of waterfront structures.
Grace Roberts, a WSP senior scientist and diver on the team, described engineer diving as a niche service for clients.
“You’ll typically find engineers, or commercial divers, but rarely will you find engineer divers who are also qualified to identify structural deficiencies underwater,” Roberts said. “Our dive engineers can often let the client know which damage is immediately significant and what is less of a concern. The engineer divers who dive the marine structures then write a condition assessment, which leads to the in-house design and environmental permitting for the repairs. It’s a unique way to build out our relationships with clients.”
Achieving Clarity within Murky Depths
WSP’s engineer dive team conducts internal training on top of their decades of combined diving experience. They conduct quarterly training programs to practice various diving and inspection skills, including emergency scenarios like rescuing an unresponsive diver.
The inspection skills that they learn quickly prove useful for the murky waters in which they often operate, where they need to rely on touch instead of sight.
“We’re used to conditions where you’re literally inspecting by feel,” Roberts said. “Sometimes the visibility is so poor, when I put my hand out in front of my face, I can just barely see the tips of my fingers. It’s just completely black water.”
Sometimes they use what’s called a clear water box, which is made of plexiglass and filled with clear water to allow for clearer pictures. But it’s a bulky and difficult device to use, so the most reliable method is to simply use your hands.
“We’re basically taught to inspect by feel, using your hands to find certain deficiencies like holes, maybe spalls (broken off wedge of concrete) in the concrete,” Roberts said. “It’s almost like reading braille.”
The team is methodical in their approach, using structural layouts, mudline depths, tidal records and other information to guide them through the murky depths.
“We know where on the structure everything is that we find, so we’re going, ‘okay at this elevation we found this,’” Wray said. “Then we record how the elevation was found and what gauge we used to find it. If it was tidal, then we record the time, or record what the actual tide was at that time, so we can get an actual depth based on actual depth compared to the site’s datum.
“We’re orienting everything three dimensionally in space that we find, in order to clearly describe all of our findings.”
Getting Used to the Diving Gear
According to Roberts, the cold and cloudy water isn’t the first challenge for this team of divers. It’s the diving suit itself.
“Engineer diving is incredibly uncomfortable, because everything is heavy, everything feels designed to choke you, and every piece of gear seems to purposely rip out large chunks of hair,” Roberts said.
Take for example the Kirby Morgan dive helmet, a massive head piece weighing roughly 29 to 31 pounds with the camera and light mounts. Roberts said it’s incredibly safe, but that doesn’t stop it from weeding out potential candidates.
“I’ve heard stories of professional divers going to dive school and getting knocked out in the first week because they just can’t stand the feel of the helmet,” Roberts said. “It’s a very odd sensation to have that much weight on your head. It’s not knocking around on your head, because we have what’s called a ‘snoopy’ that cushions it. But it’s fairly tight and snug on your face, so it’s a very claustrophobic feeling.”
Roberts herself admitted that she struggled with the suit when she first joined the team, despite already having more than 20 years of diving experience.
But she was not deterred. Instead, she got creative with her training.
“I took that helmet home and attached it to an air tank, which you need in order to breathe in it, and I wore it around the house — for the whole weekend,” Roberts said. “There are photos of me sitting in my yard enjoying the sun, but with the helmet on, or sitting on the couch and watching TV.”
Full In-House Services
With their extensive experience and training, and their rock-solid equipment, WSP’s engineer dive team has accomplished many different assignments.
Roberts cited their recent work with the Port Authority of Guam as an example.
“Our dive team spent roughly three weeks diving and inspecting several facilities within the Port consisting of piers, wharves, bulkheads and dolphins,” Roberts said. “Unlike typical dive jobs where underwater visibility is limited to two-to-five feet, visibility for this job provided the team 20-to-100 feet of visibility depending on harbor currents and vessel traffic."
Clear and constant communication between the dive team and Harbor Master was required due to the busy nature of the marine terminals. The team was also briefed on hazardous marine life that was known to frequent the area and held daily safety meetings to discuss potential hazards.
As the Port Authority’s owner/agent/engineer, the WSP team is comprised of several technical and non-technical staff who have supported the Authority since 2008. The firm’s planners serve a vital role in assisting the Port with identifying federal grant opportunities and have successfully helped them secure grant awards. which have been used to perform repairs to the aged infrastructure.
“Having a team of engineers, engineer-diver inspectors, planners, and other such staff is a great example of how WSP services can bridge multiple disciplines within the organization to provide our clients with a complete package of in-house services,” Roberts added.
Shaking Up the Monotony
Despite the hardships they endure while completing marine inspections, WSP’s engineer dive team is ultimately a labor of love for these seasoned divers, as well as a welcome escape from the office.
“Most of us, myself included, are doing design work as our primary job, so it’s a lot of fun to get out of the office and to look at these facilities,” Wray said. “We all enjoyed recreational diving outside of our careers and before diving training, and this is a great way for us to see amazing things that have been built — from a perspective few can experience — and to figure out solutions for different structural needs. It’s a really nice change of pace.”
Roberts agreed that the WSP group are all divers by passion and added that this is an exciting opportunity to get hands-on with their professional work, as well as for her to engage with marine environments.
“I think as engineers and myself a scientist, we have a desire to be hands-on with our job,” Roberts said. “Our field work is literally getting in the water and diving, and I think that shakes up the monotony of an office job and shakes up the monotony of a technically heavy job, to where we’re literally putting our hands on a structure and figuring out a way to solve a client’s problem.
“But for me it’s just a love for the marine environment and just needing to be in it in some way,” she added. “I couldn’t do it every day, but I love the 10 percent of my time that goes to diving.”
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