Mass Rescue Operations


The International Maritime Rescue Federation Mass Rescue Operations Project:

Providing support on scene


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 return to the MRO project main page under ‘MRO Library’. For a general introduction please see chapter 1, ‘Complex incident planning – the challenge: acknowledging the problem, and mass rescue incident types’.

This chapter discusses:

o the balance between ‘traditional’ rescue and on-scene support
o the types of casualty in which on-scene support may be a viable alternative
o on-scene support prior to retrieval
o on-scene support instead of retrieval
o specialised on-scene support to enable retrieval

1 Filling the Capability Gap

1.1 As noted in chapter 13 the guidance in this part focuses on three ways of filling the capability gap, and some of the funding issues inevitable to MRO planning and response. The identification of additional rescue resources is considered in chapter 13. We look at the cooperative use of regional resources in chapter 14. Funding issues are discussed in chapter 16. This chapter considers means of ‘extending survival times’ by using specialist resources and responses on scene.

2 ‘Rescue’: Retrieval or Support?

2.1 Before we look at various ways of effectively extending survival times, we should pause to consider what we mean by ‘rescue’, and whether the traditional view of rescue can be too limiting.

2.2 The IMO define rescue as the “operation to retrieve persons in distress, provide for their initial medical or other needs and deliver them to a place of safety”. The idea of ‘retrieval’ comes from what we may call the traditional view of rescue: someone is in trouble at sea, a suitable unit goes out, picks them up and brings them to safety, tending to their immediate needs on the way.

2.3 In an MRO, however, we should think, and plan, more widely. ‘Retrieval’ means picking people up from their own vessel or survival craft or from the water. If people are in the water they will need retrieving if they cannot rescue themselves. But this is not necessarily so in other scenarios. If they are reasonably safe aboard their own vessel (despite the problem that has led to the emergency) or in their survival craft, there is no absolute requirement to remove them immediately from that platform into a rescue unit. In an MRO we have the capability gap to consider: we cannot retrieve everyone at once. But we can help fill that gap by not attempting to rescue everyone at once – always assuming that the people we leave in situ can survive for the time being. We can support people on scene.

2.4 If we think about the remainder of the ‘rescue’ definition – that is, everything other than the ‘retrieval’ part – we see that it still applies whether people are ‘retrieved’ or ‘supported’. People will still need to be taken to a place of safety, and will have immediate needs to be attended to in the meantime. There is still an emergency and a need for large-scale emergency response; particularly in the shoreside part of the operation, which will be unaltered if people are brought in aboard survival craft, and not greatly altered if they remain aboard the casualty vessel until it is alongside. The at-sea part of the operation, however, will be fundamentally different. Traditionally, we speak of ‘search and rescue’ at sea. In an MRO we might, in some circumstances, consider an alternative to this: ‘locate and support’.

2.5 To summarise this dual approach we might effectively amend the definition of ‘rescue’ 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’.

2.6 We still have to plan for a large-scale response at sea because full-scale retrieval may still be necessary even if the initial plan is to keep people aboard the casualty vessel. Responders need to be prepared for a range of possibilities: on-scene support, ‘traditional’ rescue, or combinations of the two. It is because of this range of possibilities that we go beyond the IMO definition of ‘rescue’ in our discussion of MROs in this guidance. It might be argued that people who remain aboard the casualty vessel until it arrives in port have not been ‘rescued’. But this is irrelevant. The overall response structure will still be complex whether people are retrieved at sea or remain aboard their vessel and are supported there until they can be brought to safety.

3 Types of Casualty

3.1 There are many potential causes of MROs. We have noted that the cause is less important than the effect – a large number of people need to be rescued, in our wider sense, whatever the cause. But we should still consider the main causal types identified in chapter 1 when thinking about how support can be provided on scene. Broadly speaking, these incident types are:

passenger ship emergencies
offshore industry emergencies
passenger aircraft ditching
multiple incidents occurring simultaneously
migrants in unseaworthy vessels
land-based emergencies requiring rescue by sea.

3.2 In passenger ship emergencies the full range of support and rescue may be required, depending on the type of ship and the nature of the emergency. Large modern passenger ships are designed to remain habitable in the damaged condition – after partial flooding or a fire, for example. On the principle that ‘the ship is the best lifeboat’, the ship is intended to remain upright, and her people can be kept on board until the emergency is over; usually when the ship has been brought in to a port of refuge. The vessel’s vertical compartmentalisation enables the problem to be contained. This design element is meant to deal with the ‘MRO problem’ by avoiding the need for such an operation (in the ‘traditional’ sense of evacuating the ship and retrieving people from survival craft). People are brought to the place of safety still aboard the ship.

3.3 The difficulties here are that, while this is a significant and lifesaving step forward in ship design, it does not necessarily remove the need for assistance – and it is not foolproof. If the process works as intended, and evacuation is unnecessary, emergency responders should be liaising with the ship and her operators on what support they may require (see below, and chapter 17). But there will always be scenarios in which even the most modern ship may have to be evacuated at sea. It is therefore also necessary to plan generally for retrieval. In borderline cases it will be necessary to provide support while the ship tries to make port, while also maintaining a full traditional rescue capability in case the attempt fails. Indeed, providing for this ‘Plan B’ is good practice in any event in which a ship declares herself in distress.[1]

[1] ‘Overkill’ should be avoided, however. An emergency on board may require an unscheduled port call, or the provision of some specialist aid to the ship at sea – but if the emergency has been successfully contained a full-scale SAR response is not appropriate. On the other hand there have been cases of passenger ships being slow to declare an emergency to the SAR authorities because they fear the public relations consequences of an over-reaction. Emergency responders should allow for the possibility of things being worse than they at first appear, but they should also guard against deploying resources unnecessarily.

3.4 It follows that the full range of response capability should be planned for in such cases – from providing support as discussed below to a full-scale MRO in the traditional sense.

3.5 Evacuation of a passenger vessel is a decision for the vessel’s master, and will depend on the circumstances. If there is doubt as to the merits of the various courses of action – remaining aboard, precautionary evacuation of passengers and non-essential crew, or full abandonment – and if time permits, the matter should be discussed by the master, the responsible person in the shipping company ashore and the SAR Mission Coordinator. In some circumstances, however, and knowing that an evacuation takes time, it may be necessary for the master to commence an evacuation before all the desired information is available. Waiting until you are sure that an evacuation is necessary may mean waiting too long.

3.6 The recommended response has been usefully called “prudent over-reaction”. This does not, of course, mean that an evacuation should always be carried out or that every available SAR resource should always be deployed. That would certainly be over-reaction, but it would not be prudent. ‘Prudent over-reaction’ means being a few steps ahead so that, if things do not go as well as hoped, we are ready to deal with the worsening situation. In a passenger ship emergency, for example, getting passengers into warm clothes and lifejackets and moving them to the assembly stations is prudent, as is alerting SAR resources in case they are needed later.

3.7 In offshore industry emergencies, because of the additional risks inherent in the installation’s normal operation, it is more often the case that at least a partial evacuation will be ordered as a precaution. This will usually be a controlled measure conducted by the operators themselves, using their own resources, which may include providing some on-board support as discussed below. Peripheral SAR service support may also be required in a precautionary evacuation, but a full MRO response by the SAR authorities and their supporting organisations should not be. However, if the situation is not under control, a full MRO may be required. (For further discussion of this aspect, see chapter 17.)

3.8 Passenger aircraft ditchings are rare, but in this case on-board support is not an option. People escaping from a ditched aircraft will need to be rescued in the traditional sense. The same is usually true of migrants in unseaworthy vessels, and, by definition, in cases where people need to be rescued by sea from land-based emergencies. Many vessels in distress simultaneously – usually a fleet of small craft overwhelmed by the weather or sea conditions – may present a ‘mixed bag’ of support and rescue requirements; but traditional rescue is likely to preponderate.

4 On-scene Support and Retrieval

4.1 For the purposes of this discussion we can divide the provision of on-scene support into three broad categories: extending survival times by providing support so as to enable retrieval to be delayed until resources are available to undertake it; providing support as an alternative to retrieval; and providing specialist support to enable retrieval. We will consider each in turn.

4.2 The provision of on-scene support is not necessarily an alternative to the other means of filling the capability gap discussed in chapters 13 & 14. If we are trying to help people survive until they can be retrieved, we are still very likely to need additional resources, including regional resources. If the circumstances permit survivors to be supported on scene long enough for the available rescue units to make repeated trips, utilising these units in a shuttle service may be a solution: see below. But we cannot rely on this always being the case.

4.3 If on-scene support is being provided as an alternative to retrieval, the need for a ‘Plan B’ discussed above means that rescue resources (including additional resources) should still be identified, alerted and, if thought prudent, brought forward to shorten response times, even if not fully deployed to the incident scene.

5 On-scene Support Prior to Retrieval

5.1 The main aim throughout rescue is, of course, to preserve life. That is the primary aim too when supporting people on scene. Put simply, we need to help them stay alive until they can be rescued.

5.2 Threats to life will vary according to the circumstances. People in the water without buoyancy aids will drown – sometimes very quickly. People in the water with buoyancy aids will also die, usually because of the cold – and remember that ‘cold’ water can be as warm as 25°C: see the IAMSAR Manual, Volume II Chapter 3.8.8. People in survival craft may die from the cold, although less quickly than if they were in the water. They may also die because of injury or other medical condition. In time they will die of thirst. Conversely, people tend to survive longer in any given condition if they know that they have been found and will be rescued.[2]

[2] For full discussion of ‘cold’ water survival and rescue techniques – including the risks of ‘rescue collapse’ – see the IMO’s MSC Circulars 1185 Rev.1, ‘Guide for Cold Water Survival’ and 1182 Rev.1, ‘Guide to Recovery Techniques’, and IMO’s associated Pocket Guides on these subjects.

5.3 It follows that these threats to life should be addressed in order of priority. If there are people in the water without buoyancy aids who cannot be immediately rescued, buoyancy aids should be dropped to them. Such aids include lifebuoys, lifejackets and liferafts – although anything that floats will be better than nothing.

5.4 Getting people out of the water will be the next priority. If they cannot be recovered directly this means deploying survival craft or similar units. These should be so designed as to be boardable by people who are cold, tired or unfit.

5.5 To ensure that people can be found again when rescue units are available to retrieve them, it may be necessary to provide them with radios, lights, SAR transponders or emergency position-indicating radio beacons, unless a responding unit can be spared to monitor their position.

5.6 Chapter 10 provides guidance on supporting survivors during rescue, some of which applies to the provision of on-scene support too. Protecting people from the elements, ideally by providing a purpose-built survival craft they can get into, and additional clothing if necessary, is the priority after keeping them from drowning. Medical attention is the next most important consideration, together with the provision of drink and, if possible, food. If two-way communications equipment can be provided this will be of considerable help to the survivors’ morale as well as enabling the exchange of information useful to the rescuers.

5.7 Deploying all this equipment will be a matter of lowering or dropping it from SAR units or from additional resources such as vessels of opportunity.

5.8 Fixed-wing SAR aircraft cannot rescue people directly, but they can often be the first on scene and they should be able to drop detection, communications and survival equipment such as liferafts etc. Other designated SAR units should be able to transfer this equipment to the scene and leave it for those they cannot immediately recover. As noted above, in some circumstances a relatively few SAR units can rescue many people by engaging in a shuttle service, either back to the shore or to larger units on or near the scene. This is another means of filling the capability gap – but it is dependent on the people waiting being able, or enabled, to survive until it is their turn to be rescued.

5.9 Implicit in the idea of supplying equipment to help keep people alive until they can be retrieved is the need to have such equipment available to be deployed. While some SAR units may carry some such equipment as a matter of course, only the largest can carry the large quantities that may be required in an MRO. This implies stockpiles of equipment which can be quickly loaded when required – but this, in turn, leads to planning difficulties. MROs are rare, and equipment needs to be bought, stored somewhere, and maintained. Can the expense be justified, for an event that may never happen within range? Where should such stockpiles be sited? Having survival equipment immediately available to designated SAR units will be a more practical proposition in most cases – but it is unlikely to be enough in an MRO.

5.10 Stockpiling equipment may be considered feasible in areas analysed as being at higher risk of experiencing an MRO, or for remote area operations, where it may take a considerable time to get rescue units to the scene: equipment can be airlifted in while the rescue units are en route.

5.11 An alternative to purchasing and stockpiling is to make arrangements with local equipment suppliers on an on-call basis. Realistically, however, this is an idea of limited application so far as at-sea support is concerned. (It is much more practicable as regards preparing shoreside reception facilities: see chapter 11.)

5.12 Vessels of opportunity will not, of course, be equipped for MROs – but they may be able to supply some of the equipment discussed above from their own stocks. Ships’ liferafts and lifejackets as well as lifebuoys can be passed to survivors in the water around them, for example, and other equipment may be transferred to survival craft. MSC Circular 1182 Rev.1, ‘Guide to Recovery Techniques’, provides guidance on this subject. In some circumstances shipping in the area may be able to supply this sort of help quicker than designated SAR units can. While it is a serious matter for any master to deploy the ship’s lifesaving appliances in this way, the actual risk to the people in distress can be agreed to outweigh both the hypothetical risk to the ship’s crew of some future emergency and the expense involved.

5.13 It will be of great help if rescue personnel can be deployed to assist people being supported on scene pending rescue. Rescue personnel can assist people to board survival craft and can tend them there, undertaking triage, carrying out first aid, and reporting on their condition. Their presence will also calm survivors and raise their confidence, which will in itself extend their survival times.

5.14 The capability level of these supporting personnel can vary according to circumstances, but an individual should never be expected to undertake such work if too great a risk is entailed. Rescue personnel are unlikely to be deployed into survival craft from vessels of opportunity for the simple reasons that they are unlikely to have the necessary training and equipment, and if it is safe to deploy them it should also be safe to recover the survivors into the parent vessel. If recovery is not an option for them, such vessels will be more use providing equipment to survivors and standing by to give them some shelter and to direct rescuers to them. Designated SAR unit crews, on the other hand, can be trained for the on-scene support task. Some are very highly trained indeed: aircraft-deployed SAR Technicians, for example, can be deployed by air to remote-area SAR cases, and would be invaluable as forward responders in an MRO.

6 On-scene Support Instead of Retrieval

6.1 On-scene support as an alternative response to traditional SAR will usually mean on-board support – and this generally means that, as discussed above, the incident involves a passenger ship.

6.2 However, an interim scenario between ‘traditional’ SAR and on-board support while the casualty vessel is brought into port is one in which survival craft are either towed to a place of safety or reach it under their own power. This will usually be when the incident occurs near to a harbour. People in survival craft which have simply headed for the nearest beach will still need to be retrieved from that location. Survival craft on passage to a place of safety should be supported in the same way as survivors waiting on scene for rescue, as discussed above.

6.3 The IMO’s MSC Circular 1183 contains ‘Guidelines on the provision of external support as an aid to incident containment for SAR authorities and others concerned’. The Circular usefully summarises the subject of on-board support designed to help avoid the need for a full-scale retrieval operation. Its introduction notes that “In addition to the services that SAR authorities provide in accordance with the SAR Convention, other emergency support can be provided or arranged in order to assist the ship to remain habitable. While there is no obligation on SAR authorities to provide such services, they may be best-suited to assist if appropriate plans and resources to do so are developed.” And it concludes: “The safety of those involved in an emergency remains the chief priority at all times. If a ship remains habitable following an emergency, the SAR authorities and others concerned should seek to provide support as an aid to containing the emergency and specifically to reduce the need for evacuation.

6.4 MSC Circular 1183 lists the following types of on-board assistance that may be available:

Fire-fighting personnel and equipment
Assistance in extricating people who are trapped
Salvage personnel and equipment
Emergency towing
Damage control equipment
Engineering support
Medical assistance
Decontamination teams
Welfare support – shelter, water, food, heating, clothing and additional lifesaving equipment
Security support
Extra communications – personnel and equipment, including interpreters if necessary
SAR liaison support – assistance with on-scene coordination and communications
Other specialist support – marine pilots and other officers from the coastal State, and additional or replacement ship’s staff, for example.

6.5 Not all of these are SAR facilities, of course – but that is the point. In responding to emergencies of this scale we need to think holistically. It is agreed that saving life takes precedence over protecting the marine environment, which in turn takes precedence over salving property. But if you save a ship, you save those aboard her. Filling the MRO capability gap involves using whatever resources are to hand.

6.6 Some of the resources listed above – firefighters and other on-board rescue personnel, including divers – may be used to assist during retrieval. We discuss this further below.

6.7 MSC Circular 1183 goes on to emphasise the importance of identifying all such resources, agreeing response procedures with their providers, and maintaining a register of the resources available. It points out the need to coordinate with the operator of the ship or other casualty in this respect, and cites IMO Assembly Resolution A.950(23), which deals with the concept, establishment and duties of the Maritime Assistance Service (MAS), “the point of contact between ships and the coastal State for incidents which do not amount to distress”. Many of the on-board support functions listed above would normally fall into this category but, as discussed above, can have major parts to play in an MRO too. The Resolution suggests that the MAS function should be vested in the Rescue Coordination Centre, giving a single point of contact between the coastal State and any ship with an emergency to report.

6.8 The support given directly to survivors during the transfer to a place of safety should be the same whether they are aboard a rescue unit or still on their own vessel. See chapter 10.

7 Providing Specialist Support to Enable Retrieval

7.1 We consider retrieval in general terms in chapter 8. But we must also consider the possibility that people will be trapped on board the casualty unit – the ship, offshore installation or ditched aircraft. This may be the result of fire, flooding or other damage, and retrieval of people in such circumstances may be beyond the capability of ‘traditional’ SAR unit crews.

7.2 Again, the MRO planner should liaise with the relevant specialists: firefighters, divers and salvage experts, as recommended in MSC Circular 1183. Procedures for alerting the necessary specialist units, transporting them to the scene, and supporting them there should be agreed at the planning stage.

7.3 The details of these special capabilities are outside the scope of the IAMSAR Manual, other IMO guidance or this IMRF guidance. What can and cannot be done in this regard should be a matter for discussion between the MRO planner and the specialist units themselves.

8 Summary

o Traditional’ maritime rescue – retrieval of survivors and their transfer to a place of safety aboard a rescue unit – is not the only option available. On-scene support may be used to supplement or even replace this approach in some circumstances.
o The ‘support’ approach is more likely to be applicable in some types of casualty than in others; for example, on passenger ships which, although in difficulty, can be maintained in a reasonably safe condition.
o MRO planners and response organisations should be ready for either option; rescue or support, or a combination of both.
o On-scene support should not be seen as the ‘answer to the MRO problem’. It will work in some cases, but not all.
o On-scene support should be provided in priority order: preventing drowning, providing detection aids, providing medical care and sustenance, providing shelter, providing communications, facilitating or removing the need for evacuation, etc.
o Consideration should be given to stockpiling the necessary equipment in some circumstances, and to its delivery by SAR units. Vessels of opportunity should be encouraged to deploy their own equipment if it will save lives.
o Specialist support may be needed; for example, to help with firefighting or to retrieve people trapped aboard casualty units. Providers of such support should be identified and involved in the MRO planning.

9 Further Reading

9.1 For on-scene support, see IMO’s MSC Circular 1183, ‘Guidelines on the provision of external support as an aid to incident containment for SAR authorities and others concerned’ and IAMSAR Volume II Chapter 6.3 and Appendix G; and for survivor support during rescue see chapters 8 & 10.

9.2 MSC Circular 1182, Rev.1, ‘Guide to Recovery Techniques’, and the IMO Pocket Guide to Recovery Techniques include guidance on providing assistance prior to recovery, and on standing by survivors when they cannot be recovered immediately.