Survival Systems: On a Mission to Save Lives

Moments after his helicopter crashed in Labrador in 1981 Albert Bohemier was pulling the pin on his fire extinguisher without even being consciously aware of what he was doing. His reflexive response was the product of good training—and it saved his life. Walking away from the accident, Bohemier made it his personal mission to ensure other pilots would be equally well prepared in similar situations.

Out of that incident, Survival Systems was born. In the years since, the Dartmouth-based company has become the world’s top manufacturer of high-tech survival training simulation theatres to prepare civilian and military personnel to escape helicopter crashes in water.

“We train people for water scenarios because they are exceptionally dangerous,” says company CEO Paul Douglas. “You might live through the impact and still not get out alive. Of the people that do not survive the crash, 85% of them die because of drowning.”

Today the company has built 150 simulators in 29 countries. It’s capital-intensive work, with each state-of-the-art facility costing millions of dollars. While customers used to pay as much as 50 percent of a project fee up front, now the onus is on the company to foot the bill. Over the years, Survival Systems has worked closely with Export Development Canada (EDC) to maintain flexible access to the working capital needed to go after and execute large-scale projects.

Survival Systems realistic crash simulations

Survival Systems started out solely as a training organization, but founder Bohemier was disappointed by the simulation technology he had to work with. He felt trainees weren’t getting an authentic experience. So he developed a more realistic simulator and moved into the manufacturing business, with expectations of selling about five units.

After the company’s 30th simulator was built, he realized that maybe he’d stumbled onto something big.

Survival’s training simulators imitate the inside of a helicopter as closely as possible, the better to recreate the environment of a crash.

“We pride ourselves on high fidelity,” says CEO Douglas. “Wind, rain, noise, freezing cold water—you feel like you’re in a crash at sea, and you respond as if you’re in a crash. You know the training is effective because you’re not thinking, you’re acting.”

The company has built simulators in the U.S., Europe and Australia as well as throughout Africa, India, Russia and South Korea. Douglas says doing business overseas is always rewarding—and not without its challenges. He recalls the time a customer’s payment fell through, risking a deal in India. Export Development Canada (EDC) helped him secure a line of credit and retain the opportunity.

A survival industry leader

The quality of Survival Systems’ training and simulation technology has not only saved lives directly through training but also influenced helicopter designs and international safety standards.

While previous survival simulators used to be submersible boxes with a hole in the side (instead of an actual operating door as found on real-world helicopters), the verisimilitude of the Survival Systems trainer persuaded regulators to change their rules. Today it is a global requirement to train with exits in place.

“We’re not looking for a pass rate, we’re looking for good training,” Douglas says.

The quality of the Survival Systems product speaks—loudly—for itself. Negotiating a potential deal in Astrakhan, Russia, Douglas recalls being told not to bother getting off the plane, as the clients had made up their minds to choose another solution.

“We said that was fine,” says Douglas, “but since we were there, why not have the meeting anyway? After three hours, they were convinced, and they chose us after all. They said our simulator was the most amazing thing they’d ever seen and even offered us a key to the city.”

He first encountered Survival Systems in 2005, hired as a consultant to assess the value of the company. He was intrigued by Bohemier’s passion and impressed by the technology he’d developed. Bohemier was considering selling Survival Systems but decided not to, and later asked Douglas to come on board as chief executive.

Since then, Douglas has continued Survival Systems’ insistence on training and R&D. Simple things, like determining the most effective breathing apparatus, or measuring the force needed to push out a window, can be instrumental in saving lives.

“Industry needs to know these things,” Douglas says. “We take it on ourselves to build the knowledge base.”

Survival Systems is a small business from Nova Scotia succeeding in the global marketplace. Constantly pushing for better training and equipment in the industry, it is setting the world standards in high-fidelity survival technology.

“Our mission is pretty simple at the end of the day,” says Douglas. “We’re here to save lives.”

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