Dean Lawrence is a veteran vessel rescue master and search and rescue (SAR) operator and has dedicated his entire life to the Royal New Zealand Coastguard to become well-known in SAR circles worldwide. In 2015, he was elected a Trustee for the IMRF and four years later was elected as the IMRF’s Chair. However, following this year’s World Maritime Rescue Congress (WMRC), he decided to step down for his role at the IMRF. 

“It has been an honour to play such a significant role at the IMRF as both a trustee and chair, but I feel the time to step aside and allow others to lead," he noted at the time. 

Dean may no longer be directly involved with the IMRF but is still very much a part of SAR operations. As the President of the Waiuku Coastguard – also known as Waiuku Search and Rescue (SAR) – he remains focused on saving lives at sea for those off the coast of New Zealand. 

A journey that started in the Waiuku RSA rooms in August 1973 following a tragic incident on the Waikato River that claimed two lives, the local community met to formalise a SAR entity to help those in need. Today, Waiuku SAR has 24 volunteers, four vessel masters and two boats and operates off the Manukau Harbour and Bar near Auckland. The organisation is now a formal part of Coastguard New Zealand, which helps local residents to get the best out of their time on the water.

According to Dean, his volunteers have responded to countless calls for assistance for over the past five decades, underpinning his team’s commitment to their community.

The organisation is also renowned for their bespoke training courses. With most of their calls involving recreational boating incidents, Waiuku Coastguard offers recreational boating courses, such as day skipper or boat master, for boat owners to learn techniques on how to respond during a crisis and be responsible whilst on the water.

Despite this offering, Dean noted that collaboration and coordination with like-minded organisations are fundamental, particularly for a relatively small nation like New Zealand.

"We don't work alone; there are organisations such as Surf Life Saving New Zealand, Maritime New Zealand and Water Safety New Zealand that work alongside Waiuku SAR. We don’t work in silos, and the various organisations align their messages to communicate one message when training the community on water safety, wearing life jackets, weather conditions and how to be prepared for their recreational activities," he added. 

Dean noted that even the smallest craft, such as a paddleboard or a kayak, is seen as a recreational boat in New Zealand. Paddlers and rowers may not see themselves as ‘boating’, but these are technically a craft and therefore the same thought has to go into using one of these crafts as a bigger boat. 

"When using a paddleboard, for example, you still need to be aware of the weather forecast and conditions. You need to know the basics, such as carrying flares or a mobile phone in watertight bags and using a life jacket. 

"We had an incident where someone used a kayak to go fishing; however, the wind picked up and he rolled the kayak. However, because of the wind, the water was choppy, and he couldn't get back into the kayak. Luckily, he had his mobile phone in a watertight bag on him and he could phone for assistance. By the time we reached him, he was hanging onto the kayak, wet and cold. This could easily have been a bigger problem if he didn't have a way of communicating because hyperthermia can set in very quickly," Dean said. 

According to Dean, climate change is becoming a more significant challenge for SAR organisations. Although New Zealand is still in the early stages of developing climate change strategies, the country is battered by tropical cyclones and other changing climate conditions. As a result, the risk to the public continues to heighten and he noted that it is vital for SAR organisations to communicate effectively with the public to promote safety in uncertain conditions. 

"We must inform the public of these changes. There could be a cyclone hundreds of miles away, but it could still impact closer to where you live. Bars and the swell of the waves are sometimes extraordinarily high. Although these might be fine for the likes of the Royal New Zealand Coastguard that have bigger vessels, for someone with a smaller boat that may not be suited for such conditions, 3-metre to 4-metre swells driven from elsewhere can become a huge problem.” 

Dean shares the IMRF's passion for its #SARyouOK? initiative. After a serious accident 20 years ago, the Royal New Zealand Coastguard implemented a mental health and wellbeing strategy to improve the response methods for its personnel. As part of this policy, all crew members get mandatory counselling after any SAR operations that involved harm or death.

"Even before the boat returns to the base, a counsellor gets a call to meet the crew immediately after the incident. We refer to these as ‘hot debrief’. The first time, when the unit meets for a debrief, a counsellor will again attend the meeting. We do not have a requirement that the crew needs consent to see a counsellor if they need one-to-one sessions. They can go and the organisation will pick up the bill. We are proud that this has been in place for a long time.”

Dean also noted that New Zealand is often not ideal for face-to-face meetings due to their geographical location and travel costs. However, being a member of the IMRF has meant SAR organisations in New Zealand have been able to build relationships with like-minded SAR organisations from all over the world. 

"With the digital era here to stay, even the most remote country can play a role and be engaged with other SAR organisations. Podcasts, for example, are an excellent way to bring people closer wherever they are, and they can listen to these later when it is most convenient. I would encourage members of the IMRF to reach out to fellow SAR organisations if they have a issue, related to training or volunteering or funding, and see if practical solutions can be found. The community the IMRF has built remains its strongest asset and I will long advocate for the relationships SAR organisations have built together,” he added.