For search and rescue teams operating across the Mediterranean, 2015 has, unfortunately, been a busy year. In its first 100 days of operations (beginning 2 May), the humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)/Doctors Without Borders rescued 11,482 people at risk of drowning, most of them fleeing to Europe from countries such as Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. A shocking 1,652 people were rescued on a single day on 2 September.

Similarly, the search and rescue charity Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) saved more than 5,500 lives between May and August, assisting 17 vessels in distress. Many of the people it saves are traveling in wooden fishing boats or even inflatable dinghies; unseaworthy vessels that put their lives at risk. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of charities and NGOs, more than 2,800 people have perished in the crossing so far this year.

The humanitarian crisis – most starkly illustrated by shocking images of a young drowned Syrian boy, found face-down on a Turkish beach – has prompted a widespread outcry, with search and rescue efforts amassing significant public support. It has also reinforced the fact that rescue at sea is the responsibility of no single nation. If operations are going to make a difference, then unified and collaborative action is key.

Our primary functions are to represent maritime SAR services at the international level and to encourage the development of maritime SAR services worldwide.

This applies not just within the Mediterranean, but also worldwide. While the passage from North Africa to Europe has been termed the world’s deadliest border crossing, it is never possible to envisage where the next mass rescue operation will need to be conducted.

According to a recent report by the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) and the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association, there were nearly 17,000 fatalities in ferry accidents between 2000 and 2015, with nearly half of these in Asia-Pacific.

In the past few years, high-profile disasters have included the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, which capsized in January 2012, killing 33; the South Korean ferry MV Sewol, which sank killing 304 people in April 2014; and the Chinese cruise ship MV Dong Fang Zhi Xing, which saw 442 fatalities in June 2015.

Mass rescue operations (MROs), according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), are defined as needing “immediate response to large numbers of persons in distress, such that the capabilities normally available to the search and rescue authorities are inadequate”.

Since such occurrences cannot be planned for, rescue efforts are particularly hard to coordinate. As David Jardine-Smith, secretary of the IMRF explains, these are low-probability but high-consequence events.

“It is of course a good thing that they are rare, but that rarity means that people are not used to dealing with them and do not have sufficient dedicated resources to do so. The IMRF, referring to the IMO definition, has come to call this the ‘capability gap’,” he explains.

The IMRF is a UK-based charity founded in 1924 to represent maritime search and rescue (SAR) organisations across the world. Its members include large SAR bodies such as the US Coast Guard, China Rescue and Salvage, the UK & Ireland’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the German Maritime SAR Service; but also a number of small and developing SAR organisations.

“Our primary functions are to represent maritime SAR services at the international level – we have consultative status at the International Maritime Organization – and to encourage the development of maritime SAR services worldwide,” says Jardine-Smith. “We do the latter in various ways, but primarily by facilitating the sharing of knowledge and experience. Our members provide subject-matter experts to assist with various projects, such as the development of SAR coordination capability in North and West Africa; the IMRF’s rescue boat guidelines; and our Mass Rescue Operations (MRO) project.”

The MRO project in question has identified a range of challenges that search and rescue teams must surmount. Top of the list is communication. Before or during any event, there will be multiple players with various roles, responsibilities and differing information needs. It is critical that they can share this information as necessary, joining forces after the event to ensure that the relevant lessons are learned.

“Best use of the SAR resources available is also a major challenge, and so are the three parts of rescue,” says Jardine-Smith. “These include retrieving people as necessary from the unit in distress, from survival craft or from the water; tending to them as they are taken to places of safety (usually ashore); and preparing those places of safety, in part by ensuring efficient coordination between at-sea and on-land emergency responders. Accounting for everyone concerned is also very difficult.”
In cases where several nations are involved, there can be problems associated with sending SAR units across borders, particularly when the people being rescued disembark in different countries. Rather than delaying the development of a strategy, it’s important to have a pre-existing plan of action in place.

Capability gap
Regarding the ‘capability gap’, the IMRF has identified three main solutions. The first of these is to use what the IMO calls additional SAR facilities – typically commercial shipping in the area. This response has been used with some success in the Mediterranean as a means of dealing with the migrant emergency, but it remains a top priority when dealing with mass rescue operations of any kind.

The second is to extend survival times by providing help on the scene. This mitigates danger, meaning rescue can be undertaken in a more orderly fashion; or it might completely negate the need for a traditional rescue operation.
“Examples of this can range from dropping survival aids to people in distress to providing expert on-board assistance – for instance, the provision of specialist firefighters to a passenger ship on fire,” says Jardine-Smith.
The third is to share resources regionally or even internationally.

“The States of the Eastern Baltic, for example, each have well-developed maritime SAR services, but they have recognised that they cannot deal with an MRO alone,” continues Jardine-Smith. “They have come to a regional agreement to facilitate the interaction of their various national resources, enabling them to work together on the problem without delay or confusion.”
If any of these solutions are to prove effective, the most important factor is planning ahead. This means appraising the potential problem and being honest about existing capabilities, as well as communicating the plan to everyone concerned. By extension, this will lead to personnel being properly trained and the plan being thoroughly tested prior to being carried out.
In June 2014, the IMRF launched an online reference library, containing information drawn from its members’ experience in this field. Available for free on the IMRF website or in ebook format for a small charge, the library is designed to help its users find specific guidance at speed.

The organisation also helps run MRO workshops, which are intended to bring relevant parties together in a safe environment, to raise and discuss the issues at stake. So far, workshops have been facilitated in Uruguay, Malta, Bangladesh and Singapore, and there are others in the pipeline. While detailed MRO planning is a task for the relevant local authorities, these workshops are seen as a useful starting point for discussion.

The IMRF has also contributed to UN guidance on the subject – for example in the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue Manual – and has run three international MRO conferences of its own.

“Our main aim in all of this is to get the right people to talk to each other, and to arm them with information about the sort of things that often occur and can go wrong in MROs, and the sort of responses that have worked elsewhere in the world,” says Jardine-Smith. “Neither the IMRF nor its member organisations can prescribe exactly how to handle an MRO – they differ, and so do local response structures and capabilities. Local planning is a local responsibility. But we can usefully share experience so that others do not have to face an MRO unprepared.”

Learn from aviation industry
The IMRF wants to continue to improve the quality of the guidance it provides, which means encouraging open discussion and sharing experiences. This is an area, says Jardine-Smith, in which the maritime industry could stand to learn a great deal from the aviation industry.

Our main aim is to get the right people to talk to each other, and to arm them with information about the sort of things that often occur and can go wrong in MROs, and the sort of responses that have worked elsewhere in the world.

Other areas being targeted for improvement include:

  • promoting greater safety across the domestic ferry sector
  • the ability to provide aid at the scene
  • the ability to pick people up from survival craft or the water
  • better methods of accounting for everyone involved
  • the ability to provide support to rescue units, such as merchant ships, which do not always have the on-board resources required.

The IMRF is also looking to improve coordination between the responses at sea and on land. This is a particular problem where the legal status of the people being rescued is in doubt, such as in the ongoing Mediterranean refugee crisis. Here, as ever, teamwork is key.

“It is necessary to keep the focus on the MRO problem that, almost by definition, can never be fully resolved,” says Jardine-Smith. “The most important improvements are made when SAR authorities and organisations concentrate on the issues and work together to plan their MRO responses.”