In the August 2016 edition of LIFE LINE (available from the newsletter archive) we reported on the evacuation of the cruise ship Le Boréal off the Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas* in November last year. In that article we promised to provide a summary of the lessons learned as a result of the incident, as identified by Andrew Almond-Bell, the Falkland Islands Government’s Director of Emergency Services.

Andrew had attended a mass rescue operations (MRO) planning workshop organised by the British Consulate in Miami in September 2015 – only a few weeks before Le Boréal made her MAYDAY call. We reported on the workshop in the October 2015 edition of LIFE LINE.

Perhaps one of the most important ‘lessons learned’ is the value of thinking through the challenges of mass rescue and discussing them with colleagues and subject-matter experts at such events. Andrew would doubtless have preferred not to have had to respond to an MRO at all, or at least to have had rather more time to apply what he had picked up in Miami – but at least he had recently had the opportunity to consider the issues.

There were 347 people aboard Le Boréal when a fire in the engine room led to a complete loss of power, leaving the ship adrift in gale force conditions four miles offshore.

Le Boréal’s master decided on an evacuation of passengers and non-essential crew. 78 people were subsequently winched by helicopters from the ship’s deck and her liferafts. 258 more, aboard Le Boréal’s two lifeboats, were recovered by a sister ship after the boats had been escorted to sheltered waters. All were cared for in the islands until their repatriation could be arranged.

Among the learning points identified in Andrew’s report were the following, which will be of particular value to other MRO planners and responders:

•   Identification and establishment of tactical on-scene coordinators should occur at the earliest opportunity. The OSC is the primary point of contact in establishing the ‘truth on the ground’.
Aircraft have an advantageous position for command and control as well as situational awareness. This worked well during the Le Boréal rescue with one fixed-wing unit responsible for coordinating all air and surface assets at sea and another covering all aviation over land.
The use of aircraft also gave improved VHF radio coverage.
Aircraft cannot stay airborne indefinitely and may have to hand over responsibility to another unit (including a sea vessel or UAV). If multiple air assets are available consideration should be given to sequencing tasks, or splitting responsibilities in order to maintain control and understanding.
An instant online messaging service was used to increase understanding amongst the many units involved in the response.
Whilst information sharing between strategic authorities was accurate and timely, the correct identification and utilisation of liaison officers from all organisations involved was the main area identified for improvement.
  The division of responsibilities between, in this case, the cruise company, the Falkland Islands Government and the military authorities needs to be better articulated. The following issues were identified as requiring further action:
  o Ensuring that shipping companies and their agents have and share emergency response plans with relevant authorities;
  o Clarifying responsibility for establishing reception centres, accounting for all involved (including the timely provision of accurate ship’s manifests), repatriation, accident investigation, and cost recovery;
  o Ensuring enduring commitment to sustain crew who remain with the vessel;
  o Ensuring that lessons drawn from this and other shipping accidents are acted upon.
The Evacuation Reception Centres established in this case worked well and should form the basis for a Standard Operating Procedure. The SOP should include:
  o Identification of suitable centres;
  o Listing potential host families and a language skill database;
  o Establishment of emergency helplines;
  o Procedures for reuniting separated individuals, eg family members;
  o Provision of trauma management;
  o Reuniting passengers with luggage and other belongings;
  o Repatriation of personnel.

Overall this was a very successful maritime mass rescue operation. The whole complement of 347 passengers and crew were accounted for, and there were no significant injuries. "This," says Andrew Almond-Bell, "Is testament to the professionalism and resilience, reinforced by training, of everyone involved."

"It should also be highlighted that the community and private sector support were crucial in the success of the incident, they were and indeed are 'major key partners' and their involvement and integration in every plan should be paramount, even more so in remote locations."

The thorough investigation of the response, and the sharing of lessons learned by the organisations involved, is also highly commendable. Mass rescue operations are rare. It is only by learning from others’ experience that we can properly prepare for them.

*A dispute exists between the Governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland concerning sovereignty over the Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas. The IMRF uses the term agreed at the United Nations to describe the islands.

Photos: Courtesy of MOD (Crown Copyright)