Safety product knockoff has the potential to kill
Posted on 23 February 2009
Written by Douglas Campbell
Counterfeit EPIRB and life raft releases look like the original, except they don’t work
A chilling case of counterfeiting should have mariners focused on their life rafts and EPIRBs — and specifically the device that deploys these critical lifesavers.
If they are secured to your boat by a hydrostatic release, there is a chance they won’t float free should your boat sink, according to a manufacturer. That would mean you’re on your own, with no help on the way.
CM Hammar, a Swedish company that provides hydrostatic releases to many manufacturers of life rafts and some EPIRBS sold in the United States, sounded the alarm when, it says, it found counterfeit units on the market.
“Someone is producing fake copies of our hydrostatic release unit, the Hammar H20,” Hammar says in a news release. “To an untrained eye, the copy is almost identical to the original product, with Hammar’s logo and address on the labels.”
But the company says it has tested the counterfeit items and, “Not a single one of them worked properly.”
The Hammar H20 unit incorporates a “knife” that, when the unit is submerged, uses water pressure to slice a line that is a link securing the EPIRB or life raft to the boat.
“The fake H20 will definitely not release a life raft or an EPIRB,” Hammar says. “We see this as a very serious situation. There can be a number of ships at sea that are sailing with fake hydrostatic release units. If any of these ships were to sink, there will definitely be no life rafts or EPIRBs that will help to rescue the seafarers in danger.”
The Swedish Maritime Administration has joined Hammar in searching for the source of the phony products.
“A ship owner has recently purchased a number of Hammar H20 hydrostatic releases from a ship chandler in Mumbai, India,” the administration wrote in a letter to the Directorate General of Shipping in India. “The products came in boxes marked CM Hammar AB, Gothenburg, Sweden. The ship owner tested the releases and lowered five of them into the water; only one of the hydros actually cut the line.”
When the ship owner alerted Hammar about the malfunctions, the Swedish agency wrote, “The company asked them to return the faulty products, and when they arrived it was discovered that the products were not manufactured by [Hammar].”
The Swedish agency says the counterfeits were bought at International Ships’ Stores Suppliers in Mumbai. “The Swedish Maritime Administration is very concerned about this situation,” the agency said in its letter. “It is of utmost importance to find out who the manufacturer of these products is, and make him stop production and sale.”
Hammar’s sales and marketing director, Jan Calvert, says the company’s products are used by life raft manufacturers RFD/Revere, Zodiac, Datrex and Viking and by EPIRB manufacturers Jotron, Kannard and GME.
EPIRB manufacturer ACR has used the Hammar H20 as part of some of its mounting brackets, but started making its own hydrostatic release devices in 2008, according to marketing director Chris Waller.
“Our replacements from Hammar come from Hammar [directly] to us,” Waller says. Distributors of ACR EPIRBs get their replacement hydrostatic releases from ACR, he says.
“We heard of [fake releases] quite some time ago, a few years ago, and thought it had gone away,” Waller says. “Some of our distributors have seen them.”
In fact, a 2003 notice by the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association warned of counterfeit Hammar releases. According to that notice, a marine supplier in Portland, Ore., discovered the fakes when the crew of a ship registered in Greece brought them in to get plastic thimbles replaced.
“The supplier noticed they were not Swedish-made Hammar releases, but Hammar look-alikes made in Dalian, China,” the notice reported. “He was curious about their operation and fired one off. Its knife did not have enough force to cut the rope. He tested a second one to see if the first failure was a fluke. It wasn’t.”
Hammar officials say this is not the first time its design has been co-opted.
“We know of 2-3 companies that have copied our products before, but they have at least had the decency to use their own brand name even if the product is a look-alike,” Hammar managing director Henrik Palsson wrote to Soundings in an e-mail. “In this [recent] case they have copied everything, apart from the actual function of the product.”
“Many of the life rafts for recreational area are also being equipped with a [Hammar] hydrostatic release ... [including] all the smaller fishing boats that are in the ‘gray area’ between recreational and SOLAS,” Palsson said.
Hammar releases are certified by the U.S. Coast Guard, according to Lt. Cmdr. Vincent A. Gamma of the agency’s Lifesaving and Fire Safety Division in Washington, D.C. The only other manufacturers whose hydrostatic release units are Coast Guard-certified are ACR Electronics, McMurdo, General Pneumatics Corp. and Thanner & Co., Gamma says.
Hammar is considered the dominant manufacturer of hydrostatic releases, say industry professionals.
“There’s been others on the market, but they don’t seem to stick around,” says Stephen Jaekels, sales manager at life raft manufacturer Switlik Parachute Co. “There was one out that was rebuildable, but they’ve gone away.”
Jaekels says Switlik, which uses Hammar releases, hasn’t seen any of the fake units. “We’re just kind of looking through it now, seeing if there’s anything in stock. It’s kind of vague. It’s going to be tough picking them out.
“Unfortunately,” Jaekels says, “if you need to use that hydro and the boat sinks, who’s going to complain?”
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.