Mass Rescue Operations

Philosophy & Focus

The International Maritime Rescue Federation Mass Rescue Operations Project:

The challenge: acknowledging the problem, and mass rescue incident types


The IMRF’s mass rescue operations (MRO) guidance is provided in 30 separate chapters. For downloadable documents referenced in this chapter, please use the drop-down menus or go to the MRO Library.

This chapter includes a general introduction to the IMRF’s MRO project and discusses:

o the IMO definition of a ‘mass rescue operation’
o the challenge such an event presents, in terms of scale, complexity and rarity
o the need to recognise the risk, and to allocate planning and training resources to it
o who should be involved in preparing for mass rescue operations
o mass rescue incident types
o mass rescue operations in the broader planning context
o the subjects covered by the IMRF’s MRO project
o the philosophy underlying the project
o the focus required in preparing for mass rescue operations

General Introduction

The reader of this guidance on mass rescue operations might begin by asking what relevance it may have for him or her. That is a legitimate question. MROs are ‘low-probability / high-consequence’ events. Yes: they are immensely serious and very complicated – but are you ever likely to be involved in one? No: it’s not very likely. So why focus on something that’s unlikely to happen? Isn’t that a waste of time?

No. One thing that is very clear from experience is that if you have focussed on the possibilities beforehand, and prepared as best you can, your response will be significantly improved. Which means that you will probably save more lives. It’s as simple as that.

Does this apply to everyone who might become involved – every rescue unit crew member, every ship’s master, every shore-side responder and planner? Yes: it does. This is obviously so for the planners, but it applies too to everyone they may need to make their plans work – because plans do not work if the people who have to put them into practice do not understand them. And those people might well include you.

The IMRF’s MRO project includes the development of an online library of relevant information intended to help you think through the MRO problems and prepare yourself and your organisation.

The information is grouped into five primary subject areas: ‘Philosophy & Focus’, ‘Planning’, ‘Resources’, ‘Command, Control, Coordination, Communication’, and ‘Training, Exercises and Drills, and Learning from Experience’.

These primary subject areas are further subdivided into secondary ones, each of which is introduced by general IMRF guidance.

The IMRF guidance is cross-referenced. The reader is able to quickly find the material he or she requires online when considering particular parts of the MRO problem.

The IMRF’s guidance is also available in book form (as hard copy or a pdf) for the reader who wishes to consider the MRO problem as a whole. Please visit (new window).

Shared information forms the third and most detailed layer of material in the online library.

Some of it is hosted directly on the IMRF website: some is accessed by links to its owners’ sites. Other guidance, including the primary reference document on search and rescue, the IAMSAR Manual, is also referred to, and is recommended reading. Some of this material, including the Manual, is only available by purchase. (Visit the IMRF bookshop, (new window).)

So, the reader may well ask, will all this material provide all I need to run a successful MRO? Is this guidance a blueprint for success? Sorry – but no. We certainly hope that it will help; but it is guidance – things to think about, other people’s experience and ideas to consider. It is not a set of rules to follow. Indeed, there is no such set of rules: there is guidance like this, but how best to apply it is down to your own judgement.

The philosopher Julian Baggini remarks that codification – setting out rules – is “the death of judgement. The more any kind of task or procedure is reduced to a formalised set of steps, the less we use and develop our judgement. There is a gap between what can be fully explained objectively and what is needed to achieve the best results practically.” Good judgement is needed to bridge this gap: “It is not an excuse for lack of rigour but a way of dealing with the limits of rigour.[1]

[1] Julian Baggini, ‘The tyranny of recipes’, Prospect magazine February 2014.

The guidance made available through the IMRF’s MRO project does not remove the need for good judgement, whatever part you may have to play in an MRO. It does not provide all the answers. But it does seek to raise the questions that others have had to face, and to discuss possible and practical solutions.

It is worth taking action in advance to deal with disasters,” wrote Kenneth Watt in The Titanic Effect. “The costs of doing so are typically inconsequential, measured against the losses that would ensue if no such action were taken. The magnitude of disasters decreases to the extent that people believe that they are possible, and plan to prevent them or to minimise their effects.[2]

[2] Kenneth E F Watt, The Titanic Effect: planning for the unthinkable, 1974. Professor Watt’s book is on economics – but his point remains applicable to maritime emergencies.

No MRO is ever likely to go smoothly, or precisely according to the plan; and there will always be an element of ‘luck’. People involved in MROs often say that they were lucky that this happened, or that that didn’t happen.

But the old adage applies: the harder I work, the luckier I get… Time and effort spent on planning and preparation are good investments: they save lives.

The IMRF hopes that you will find this material helpful and that, if you ever find yourself responding to an MRO, you will be able to do so with greater confidence because you have considered the issues discussed here.

1. The Challenge

1.1 The IMO define ‘rescue’ and ‘mass rescue operations’ as follows:

‘Rescue’ is the “operation to retrieve persons in distress, provide for their initial medical or other needs and deliver them to a place of safety”
A ‘mass rescue operation’ is “characterised by the need for immediate response to large numbers of persons in distress, such that the capabilities normally available to the search and rescue authorities are inadequate”.

1.2 It follows from the second definition that an MRO will require the SAR authorities to put extraordinary measures into effect in order to deal with it. If there can be such a thing as ‘routine SAR’, an MRO is beyond the routine: the ‘capabilities normally available ... are inadequate’. Those capabilities will therefore have to be enhanced in an MRO.

1.3 This is clearly a major challenge – and it is a challenge for everyone involved in maritime SAR, not just the State authorities responsible for planning and coordination.

1.4 The SCALE and COMPLEXITY of the event are part of the challenge. By definition, it will be bigger and more difficult than the ‘ordinary’ SAR case. Large numbers of people are in distress, and will die if the SAR services cannot rescue them.

1.5 But the challenge is also due to the RARITY of such events. A SAR professional might go through a whole career without being involved in an MRO – and even if s/he is involved in one, there are many variables. To turn the IMO’s definition on its head, an MRO is so rare that the authorities cannot justify maintaining sufficient resources to deal with it ‘routinely’. Areas of increased risk might be identified – major passenger ferry routes, for example – but the risk usually remains low-probability despite being high-consequence.

1.6 This is not just a question of physical resources; having sufficient staff and SAR units to handle such an operation. The rarity and variability of MROs mean that responders do not become expert in them. Skills developed in ‘routine’ SAR still have their place in mass rescue response, but there are additional requirements. Handling an MRO well means more than simply working a bit harder than usual!

1.7 Although MROs can vary greatly in their detail, common factors can still be identified – and we can study these factors to help prepare ourselves. A SAR professional may be unlucky to be involved in an MRO, but that does not mean that s/he cannot be prepared. This is primarily a matter of planning and training; thinking the problems through.

1.8 The first part of the challenge is to RECOGNISE THE RISK and the need to prepare to deal with it, however unlikely it may appear. This means allocating some resources to PLANNING AND TRAINING. The IMRF’s MRO guidance material is designed to help with these processes.

2 SAR Authorities & Capabilities

2.1 MROs are a challenge for everyone in maritime SAR. This includes:

o the SAR COORDINATOR – the planner at national or regional level responsible for ensuring that preparations are made so that, if an MRO is required, it can be carried out efficiently and effectively (see chapter 18)
o the COMMANDERS and OPERATORS of potential casualty vessels, aircraft, offshore installations, etc: the people leading the response to an emergency on their own unit
o the SAR MISSION COORDINATOR (SMC) – responsible for organising the SAR response to the incident (see chapter 19)
o designated SAR UNIT COMMANDERS – responsible for ensuring that their units, whether air, sea or land, are prepared to play their part
o the COMMANDERS OF 'ADDITIONAL FACILITIES' such as ships at or near the scene of the incident – who should be ready to help in accordance with their obligations under international regulations
o the ON SCENE COORDINATOR (OSC) – responsible for putting the SAR Mission Coordinator’s response plan into effect at the scene of the incident: a complex task in a mass rescue operation (see chapter 20)
o the AIRCRAFT COORDINATOR (ACO) – responsible for the overall safety and best use of air units, which may be operating in unusual numbers and circumstances in such a case (see chapter 21)
o the SHORESIDE EMERGENCY RESPONSE AUTHORITIES – who must be ready to receive those involved as they are brought ashore by the maritime responders
o the PARENT AUTHORITIES of all these units – responsible for ensuring that, so far as possible, they are prepared for this sort of emergency
o and, last but not least, each individual in every team or crew supporting the SAR authorities listed above. An MRO is a complex matter. It is more likely to be successful if INDIVIDUAL PLANNERS AND RESPONDERS understand the ‘big picture’ and their own place within it. Everyone should ‘own’ the MRO plan. See chapter 2.

2.2 The definition of an MRO is based on the idea that the ‘capabilities normally available to the SAR authorities are inadequate’ to deal with it. This will be true of numbers and capacities of designated SAR resources: SAR authorities cannot afford to keep on standby rescue units large enough to accommodate the thousands of people from a large passenger vessel evacuating at sea, for example. A key part of MRO planning should be planning how to fill this capability gap. See chapter 4.

2.3 The inadequacy problem should be less true of people, however: people can prepare for an MRO. MRO plans can and should be made, trained in, and tested by exercises of various kinds. See chapters 5 & 26.

3 Mass Rescue Incident Types

3.1 People often think of maritime mass rescue operations in terms of accidents to large passenger vessels – incidents which have caught global attention and have led to significant administrative responses from, for example, the IMO. However, there are many circumstances in which large numbers of people may be in distress in a maritime context. Examples are briefly considered here.

3.2 Passenger ship accidents are indeed a major source of MROs. Many lives are lost each year in passenger ship accidents, most often in domestic ferries in the developing world. These disasters are not as high-profile as one involving a cruise ship or a large modern ferry; but they are just as important. Safety improvements are often needed in the operation of such ships – preventing an MRO is better than conducting one. And designated SAR resources are likely to be fewer in the areas in which such ships work: the capability gap is wider.

3.3 In considering passenger ship accidents in particular we need to remember that ‘rescue’ need not only be required following an abandonment. One principle underpinning modern passenger ship design is that people may stay aboard in relative safety following an accident. There will always be exceptions, as Costa Concordia showed in 2012 and Le Boréal in 2015, but SAR authorities should be as ready to assist a passenger ship in difficulty which is not being abandoned as they are one that is. See chapters 5, 8 & 15.

3.4 Offshore industry emergencies may also require the rescue of large numbers of people. In such cases there are likely to be complicating factors to do with the nature of the emergency – a fire or explosion on an offshore installation, for example. On the other hand there should be a significant emergency response from the offshore industry itself. SAR authorities and responders will be working alongside industry resources in the response to any major incident, and should therefore plan with the industry too.

3.5 The same principle applies to sectors of the passenger shipping industry. Planning with offshore industry or ferry companies working in a particular location is easier than with cruise companies whose ships trade over wide areas, but the effort should still be made. Planning in isolation will lead to confusion during an emergency response.

3.6 A large passenger aircraft ditching at sea is a rare occurrence – but not unknown, as demonstrated by the famous case of US Airways Flight 1549’s ditching in the Hudson River in 2009. Timescales will be shorter in such incidents: there may be little time between the distress call and abandonment of the aircraft. There will be limited survival equipment available on board, and a higher proportion of injuries may be expected.

3.7 Multiple incidents occurring simultaneously may also require a mass rescue operation, sometimes over a wide area. A fleet of fishing vessels or leisure craft may be overwhelmed by unexpected bad weather, for example. While each individual case may only require a ‘routine’ SAR response, many cases occurring more or less simultaneously can result in SAR services being stretched beyond their normal capabilities. This capability gap too will need to be filled.

3.8 Refugees or migrants in unseaworthy vessels present a special case of MRO. There are almost always problems with alerting and subsequent communication with the casualty vessel in such cases, and survival equipment is usually lacking. There are also issues to be faced regarding what is to be done with survivors. These issues should not be allowed to affect the rescue operation itself, and SAR facilities, including additional facilities such as merchant ships, should be allowed to land survivors into the care of appropriate shoreside authorities without delay.

3.9 Rescue by sea of people caught up in land-based emergencies is another possible cause of a maritime MRO. Examples include the rescue of people affected by a natural catastrophe such as flooding, earthquake or volcanic eruption. On 9/11 very large numbers of people were evacuated from Lower Manhattan by water. For further consideration of special cases of MRO, see chapter 12.

3.10 Although the causes differ, and will present specific challenges in each case, the main principles of MRO response remain. This is why the IMO defines an MRO in terms of its effect. Risk surveys can and should be carried out periodically, in order to identify particular areas and categories of risk: see chapter 3. But MRO planning should be generic rather than specific to each risk type.

3.11 MRO planning should also be flexible enough to cater for the specific circumstances of an incident when it occurs. In some cases the planning will involve particular details and partners previously identified in the risk analysis – planning for an incident involving a passenger ferry or an offshore installation, for example. But planning and response will be more efficient and effective if a generic and flexible approach is adopted, with particular cases dealt with within an overall response framework. MROs are rare: a common plan will be better remembered and easier to implement on the day.

4 MROs in the Planning Context

4.1 In the IMRF’s MRO guidance we tend to speak of maritime MROs in isolation. We are focussing on the specific challenges presented by having to rescue large numbers of people at or by sea. In practice, however, it is recommended that planning and training for MROs should be a sub-set of the planning and training for any major or complex incident. Many of the challenges and solutions will be similar.

4.2 As discussed, such incidents have three main points in common: they are rare; they require responses beyond the ‘routine’; and they are best prepared for by generic planning and training.

4.3 The resources made available by the IMRF’s MRO project should be used as necessary as part of these overall preparations for incidents which, although rare, should not be unexpected.

5 MRO Subjects

5.1 The following list of MRO subject headings may not be complete, but it covers most of the areas found from previous experience to be important things to think about. It therefore forms the central framework of the IMRF’s library of information intended to be of use to anyone preparing themselves and their organisations for mass rescue operations. In each case the reader is referred to the subject-specific IMRF guidance and thence to other helpful resources.

Philosophy & focus: considered in this chapter and chapters 2, 3 & 4
Mass rescue / complex incident planning: see chapters 5, 6 & 7
Mass rescue resources (including funding): see chapters 4, 14, 15 & 16
On-scene support, including on-board support: see chapter 15
Retrieval of large numbers of people in distress, including recovery of people from survival craft or from the water: see chapter 8
Use of ‘additional facilities’: see chapters 13, 22 & 23
Communications – priorities, systems, and structures: see chapter 25
The SMC, OSC & ACO roles: see chapters 19, 20 & 21
Use of surface units: see chapter 22
Use of air units: see chapter 23
Accounting for people, including searches: see chapter 9
Supporting survivors during rescue: see chapter 10
Transfer to the ‘place of safety’: see chapter 11
Coordination with shoreside authorities: see chapter 24
Remote areas & other special cases: see chapter 12
Learning from our own and others’ experience, including survivors’: see chapters 29 & 30
Training & exercising: see chapters 26, 27 & 28.

6 Philosophy & Focus

6.1 The fundamental thinking underlying the IMRF’s MRO project is that, although rare, such events can happen anywhere and at any time. It is therefore necessary to be prepared to deal with them.

6.2 By definition, SAR authorities cannot respond adequately with the resources immediately available to them. They must therefore plan to ‘fill the capability gap’, identifying the necessary additional resources, their likely partners in the response network, and how the overall response should be handled, with agreed command, control, coordination and communication structures.

6.3 One aspect of this, which we will discuss in detail in chapters 4 and 15, is to acknowledge that ‘traditional’ rescue, as defined by the IMO, may not be the most appropriate response in some circumstances. As a possible alternative to retrieving people in distress, we should also think about supporting them, aboard a damaged but still tenable ship, for example, or aboard survival craft, until they can be brought to safety. The IMO’s definition of rescue might be usefully amended to read:

‘an operation to retrieve or support persons in distress, provide for their initial medical or other needs and deliver them to a place of safety’.

6.4 As noted above (‘MROs in the planning context’), and including the concept of support as well as traditional rescue, planning for mass rescue operations should be generic and flexible. Plans should, so far as is practicable, be agreed between all likely response organisations, and all likely responders should be trained in the plan. Both plans and training should be tested by exercises and drills. See chapters 2, 26 & 28.

6.5 One of the main aims of the IMRF’s MRO project is to collate and organise existing guidance materials, and, as necessary, encourage the development of additional materials, so that those seeking to prepare themselves for mass rescue operations can do so readily, using the tools the project makes available.

6.6 It is the IMRF’s belief that all those who may become involved in such an operation can and should focus carefully on the issues so that they are better prepared to deal with them when an MRO, of whatever type, is required. The IMRF’s MRO project therefore seeks to:

examine the issues
identify themes and difficulties
make recommendations based on experience
raise awareness, particularly of the benefits and means of planning; and
share our findings.

6.7 The project materials to be found in the IMRF’s online library – see – are intended to fulfil this last objective, and to act as a comprehensive set of guidance material to assist people preparing to deal with MROs.

7 Summary

o In an MRO, the SAR capabilities normally available are inadequate.
o The scale, complexity and rarity of MROs are challenges for all concerned.
o We can prepare for these challenges by recognising the risks, and planning and training to deal with them.
o This is not just a matter for the responsible authorities but for everyone who might become involved in an MRO.
o There are many potential causes of MROs, and the risks should be analysed locally: but the effects are more important than the causes.
o MRO planning should be generic and flexible.
o Common MRO themes and challenges can be identified: each is considered in the online library of information compiled under the IMRF’s MRO project.
o Anyone who may be involved in MRO planning or response is invited to contribute.

8 Further Reading

8.1 The main references to MROs in the IAMSAR Manual are in Volume I Chapter 6.6 and Volume II Chapter 6.15 and Appendix C. See also IMO’s COMSAR Circular 31, ‘Guidance for Mass Rescue Operations’.

8.2 We also particularly recommend

These documents are available for download from the MRO library.

Ten Mass Rescue Operational Realities’, by George ‘Rob’ Lee and Rick Janelle, of the United States Coast Guard;
the IMO/UNHCR/ICS publication Rescue at Sea: a guide to principles and practice as applied to migrants & refugees; and
the International Chamber of Shipping’s Large scale rescue operations at sea.