In the August 2017 edition of LIFE LINE (see the newsletter archive) we asked “What is ‘distress’?” It’s an important question. People known to be in distress need to be rescued, of course – and the SAR community knows that this concept must also be extended to those believed to be in distress, and to those who, while not yet in distress, will become so if help is not provided to them in the meantime.

It’s an important question at the policy level too. LIFE LINE readers know that SAR can be difficult ‘at the sharp end’, out on the water. It can also be difficult at the policy end, , where those responsible for providing SAR services face many calls on limited resources. Ancient tradition and modern international law require the rescue of those in distress at sea; but it is necessary to have a clear idea of the criteria. What does ‘distress’ mean? When does the law apply – and when might it not?

We noted in our August article that the International Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention requires almost all ships to help people in distress at sea, and we also noted the need in the last few years to defend the spirit of the rescue requirement as we SAR people understand it in the context of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.

“Are people motoring out to sea ‘in distress’?” some have asked…

It is not just in the context of the Mediterranean crisis that the meaning of ‘distress’ has come under consideration. At a recent international meeting attended by the IMRF it was suggested that a medical evacuation from a ship at sea should not qualify as the rescue of someone in distress if the ship has a doctor aboard.

The concern was that some cruise ships – which carry doctors as crew members – misuse the SAR services by asking for (free) rescue when they should instead either treat the patient on board until the ship arrives in port or pay for the transfer.

To be fair, this is a difficult question. Most people in SAR can tell stories of their services being abused – and they will also agree that some cases are borderline. ‘In distress?’ Well, maybe: but better to be safe than sure.

In the meeting mentioned above it was agreed that the presence of a doctor assists the decision-making process but does not necessarily negate the need for rescue. Some patients can be kept aboard, but it is better for others to be taken off before the ship can reach port. If the SAR services are the best option in the latter case – best for the casualty, that is – then so be it.

It would be better to be surer, though. Can we not define ‘distress’ better?

In our August article we pointed out that ‘distress’ itself is not defined in the most relevant international instruments, including the SOLAS Convention.

What is defined – in the Maritime SAR Convention, the Convention on International Civil Aviation and the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue (IAMSAR) Manual – is the distress phase.

All three of these key texts define three phases of emergency – ‘distress’, ‘urgency’ and ‘uncertainty’ – and the providers of SAR services need to be ready to respond appropriately to each. But the three texts each define these phases differently; and this disparity is most important when it comes to deciding on whether someone is in distress.

The Maritime SAR Convention defines the distress phase as “a situation wherein there is reasonable certainty that a person, a vessel or other craft is threatened by grave and imminent danger and requires immediate assistance”.

The Civil Aviation Convention and the IAMSAR Manual agree about “reasonable certainty”, “grave and imminent danger”, and requiring “immediate assistance”. But the Civil Aviation Convention currently mentions only “an aircraft and its occupants”, while the IAMSAR Manual has “a vessel or other craft, including an aircraft or a person”.

Several parts of these definitions are vague, and the English in the Manual is tortured. But surely the three texts should agree? They could usefully begin by agreeing what can be in distress. Various craft are mentioned in the definitions; but inanimate objects are not our concern.

Think of a ‘drone’. It can certainly crash, but no-one is in distress as a result unless they get hit by it. We are actually concerned about people aboard these craft. This is clearly what the Civil Aviation Convention means (“an aircraft and its occupants”), but this formulation omits other sorts of craft, or people who have not been in an ‘craft’ in the first place.

The IMRF has argued that craft are superfluous in this context, and that the common definition of the distress phase should be “A situation wherein there is a reasonable certainty that a person or persons are threatened by grave and imminent danger and require immediate assistance”.

But this has caused concern among national policymakers, who (rightly) point out that it applies on land as well as in the air or on the water, and whose emergency response legislation may be based on the notion of a ‘craft’ being in difficulty.

Response to emergencies on land are a national matter, not covered by the international Conventions; and administrators with tight budgets have to ensure that those budgets are spent correctly.

Some readers may feel that such arguments are insufficient. But that does not stop them being made; and this is why the question ‘What is distress?’ remains so important at the policy as well as the operational level.

A clear legal basis for organising rescue is, in its way, as important a part of the rescue itself as analysis of and response to actual situations by SAR people.

The discussion is set to continue at the international level, and the IMRF will continue to fulfil our advocacy role in this respect.

If you would like to contribute to the debate, let us know your thoughts by emailing [email protected]k.