By Roly McKie, IMRF IMO Representative and SAR Advisor

SAR operations are complex. They consist of many components and moving parts. SAR is a classic example of a complex, dynamic system, with many connections and interactions.

It is hard to say what is the most important part of any SAR system because it depends where you start from: people in danger cannot be rescued unless someone knows that they are in danger, so the alerting system might be seen as the most important. Or they cannot be rescued unless there are rescue boats to come and get them. So maybe that is the most important element?

Whatever your point of view is, in many places around the world, there is a SAR system in place that exists to respond, but it has capabilities and limitations, and SAR personnel would do well to understand these.

‘Caps and lims’

What do we mean by capabilities and limitations? People who have been in the military may know this as ‘caps and lims’; a neat shorthand for two, long, English words.

Capabilities refers to the potential and abilities that someone or something possesses to perform certain tasks or achieve specific goals. 

Limitations, on the other hand, denotes the boundaries, restrictions, or weaknesses that constrain what someone or something can do or achieve. 

A well-informed SAR person (whether they work in a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), or on a rescue boat or SAR helicopter) needs to understand the ‘caps and lims’ of their machine, equipment and/or the processes and systems they use or are part of. If they don’t, then one day they may be surprised, and that day may also be the moment that they or their unit fails because they did not know, and understand, the boundaries of the performance of their unit or equipment.

Some SAR services train their people on this kind of detail for the resources, equipment and processes they are to use or work with. For example, MRCC staff are taught the ‘caps and lims’ of the rescue resources they have available to them and the radio, computer and other communications systems and SAR processes they use. Rescue boat crew should be aware of the capabilities and limitations of their own craft and the general parameters and performance of flank boats, SAR aircraft, the MRCCs they work with, and any other resources in their normal area of operations. This kind of detail may seem boring, but it is an important foundation for anyone in the ‘SAR system’.

For example, if we start at the point of an alert being received, MRCC operators need to know how the radio or satellite system works and what the limits are and what could go wrong and why, and how that may affect the response. Crucially, what clues are there that indicate a limitation or problem has occurred with the process, such as some important information is missing or corrupted because of poor communications due to weather conditions or the type of communications being used.

The rescue boat crew that has been alerted to the incident has to know the performance boundaries for the operation of their boat: can they launch in these conditions? Can they operate outside of sheltered water for this incident? How long are they going to have to search for? Is any equipment not functioning?

Knowing these parameters also helps people to decide what alternative course of action to use (if one is available and there is time to use it).

Understanding capabilities and limitations makes you a better and more useful part of the SAR system. If you know these boundaries you can act as part of the bigger system team and alert others to any problems, or to a capability that you have that may be very helpful in an incident situation.

Being crystal clear

Remember, not everyone can know everything. It is unlikely that the people you are working with know and understand all your resource’s capabilities and limitations. Ask or tell them if you realise that there is something that needs to be explained or made clear.

What kind of things should we be looking for in any capabilities and limitations information? Here are some thoughts (not an extensive list as I am sure that IMRF members will have many more). This list can be either capability or limitation, depending on conditions and situation – it’s complicated, as you know!

  •       MRCCs: Communications systems available – range, coverage, reliability, availability, clarity, audience – who at sea has the system and who does not? What rescue resources are available in the area? What types of ships might be at sea in the SAR area, and their capabilities? Search planning modelling and capability: manual or computer – and how reliable, accurate and consistent is it? Chart coverage of SAR area – comprehensive or limited, and up to date?
  •      Rescue boats: range, weather and sea state limits, time of year, time of day, manoeuvrability and agility, navigation system performance, speed – in various conditions, search effectiveness (EO cameras or not – and how good? D/F and radar – coverage detection capability and how effective?), medical capability, communications systems, crew limitations and restrictions – is crew on open deck and exposed to weather or in cabin and protected? What effect does cabin versus open deck have on visual searches?
  •       SAR helicopters: weather limits, range (radius of action and on scene time), navigation system performance, agility and manoeuvrability, survivor capacity – dependent on range and conditions? Medical capability, search effectiveness (EO cameras, radio systems, D/F and radar – detection capability and how effective? Impact (noise, visual distraction, lights effecting search at night, etc)

Sharing knowledge and experience

There is also another important resource to apply the capabilities and limitations concept to: people. How effective, reliable, consistent, and well trained are they? How much practice have they had on the boat/aircraft, its systems, equipment, and the SAR processes and procedures that require practice to master? Which people can you rely on the most and the least? What are you doing about those with limitations?

SAR requires a large, albeit dispersed, team that has people who know a great deal about their part of the system, and its capabilities and limitations, and enough about the other parts to be good team players. To achieve this, it is necessary to ensure that we share that knowledge both before SAR incidents – during training, education, and briefing sessions, and during SAR operations – when we may have an opportunity to raise an important capability or limitation with our SAR colleagues which might positively affect the mission.