Mass Rescue Operations

Training, Exercises and Drills, and Learning from Experience

The International Maritime Rescue Federation Mass Rescue Operations Project:

Exercises and drills


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 need for effective MRO exercises
o MRO exercise types
o the funding of MRO exercises
o the requirement placed on some passenger ships by international regulation to exercise emergency cooperation arrangements
o exercise aims, objectives and roles
o exercise orders and reports

and includes a list of suggested exercise components.

1 Plan, Train, Test, Review

1.1 MROs should be planned for; but planning alone is insufficient. People must be trained to various degrees in the implementation of the plan or it will not work. The adequacy of planning and training is then checked and the results, if properly acted upon, will lead to improvements in both.[1]

[1] It has been well said that ‘The Plan’ is a set of assumptions – and those assumptions should be tested.

1.2 The testing of plans and training is not a risk-free process: it can reveal shortcomings which must be addressed. This only happens when organisations want it to happen. Exercises take time and resources, both of which cost money; and if that money is to be well spent, and an objective of the exercise is to conduct a real test, the organisations involved must accept that this will entail the identification and learning of lessons, with further action to follow, repairing faults or building good new ideas into the planning. See chapter 29.

1.3 It follows that exercises, like planning and training, must be ‘owned’ by the people conducting them (see chapter 2). Just as plans will only be effective if the people who have to implement them feel that the plan is ‘theirs’, and training only works if people understand the benefit of being trained, so exercises, to be worthwhile, need to be taken seriously by the people participating in them. If an exercise – particularly (but not only) a live exercise – is seen to be unrealistic, or if people (planners as well as players) can say afterwards that ‘that only went wrong because it was an exercise...’, then the value of the event will be in doubt.

1.4 As noted in chapter 26 in the context of training, it can be hard to justify expenditure on MRO exercises when MROs are rare events. But the justification is provided by the high-consequence nature of such events. The consequences of failure can be enormous.

1.5 MRO exercises are therefore, we argue, as essential to MRO preparation as planning and training. Exercises are required to test systems and procedures; to identify shortcomings and potential improvements; to promote good practice; and to enhance liaison between participating organisations.

1.6 Successful exercises require careful planning, execution and evaluation. Their success may be measured by how many problems are discovered; by how much is learned; by how much the plans are subsequently improved; and by how few mistakes are repeated during the next exercise.

2 MRO Exercise Types

2.1 We can discuss types of MRO exercise under two headings: what sort of outcomes do we want, and what sort of exercise should it therefore be?

2.2 Desired outcomes should determine the exercise format chosen. Exercises can be designed to achieve three different sorts of outcome.

o An exercise can be a DEMONSTRATION, showing how the process – in this case a mass rescue operation – should be carried out, perhaps for political or public consumption
o It can be a TRAINING EXERCISE, part of a team or individual development programme
o It can be a TEST, designed to see how effective the developed plans and training are.

2.3 Each of the functions above has its place. There is nothing wrong with laying on a ‘demonstration’, for example, provided that that is the agreed purpose of the event. On the other hand, we should not expect things to work perfectly in a ‘test’. Indeed, it would be a little worrying if they did! Few if any human endeavours are perfect, after all, and the slope in the plan-train-test-review diagram below is theoretically endless. To find nothing wrong at all may be an indication that we weren’t looking hard enough. When things go wrong in a ‘testing’ exercise, we should be pleased rather than displeased, for it is preferable that something should go wrong in an exercise rather than in a real MRO. Similarly we should be on the lookout for things that go unexpectedly well. See chapter 29.

2.4 It is very important for participants at all levels in a training exercise or a test to be open to learning from their experience, whether good or bad. Without such openness much of the value of the event will be lost. It is understandable if planners are upset when holes are found in their plan, or managers when their organisations are seen to fall short, or individuals when they make mistakes – but during an exercise is the right time for these things to happen, rather than during an MRO itself. All concerned should try to see it in this light.

2.5 The other heading under which we can place exercises and drills is that of format. These are, generally:

o LIVE exercises, which may be full-scale or limited in scope; training or testing particular functions, for example
o SIMULATION exercises, involving multi-bridge simulator suites or similar arrangements to give a realistic feel to the event without actually deploying units at sea
o TABLETOP or DISCUSSION exercises, which are primarily intended to promote debate and mutual understanding, as well as testing the principles of the plan and players’ understanding of the plan and of their own roles and responsibilities[2]
[2] ‘Tabletop’ exercises can involve modelling, traditionally on a table visible to all the players, although screens or other displays can also be used. The use of models is designed to help players visualise what is going on, and can be very effective. But models are not essential, especially for the more discursive sort of exercise.
o COMMAND POST or COORDINATION exercises, which are ‘live’ in the sense that the players are separated (in different rooms or, better, where they usually work) but do not actually undertake the SAR actions they are discussing
o COMMUNICATIONS exercises, which may, at the simplest level, be checks that previously identified communication links work, or may increase in complexity, working through simple scenarios, so that, at the upper level of complexity, a communications exercise effectively becomes a command post exercise.

2.6 The main point here is that the format chosen should be suited to the exercise aims and objectives (see below). A demonstration exercise will usually be a live one, for example, while the tabletop or discussion format will be better suited to fulfilling training objectives. To test a system fully will require live elements, but the use of simulators can reduce both expense and risk. Command post and communications exercises can also be partial tests, and will assist with training and familiarisation.

2.7 Exercises can be conducted in real time or on a ‘stop-the-clock’ basis. Stopping the clock means pausing the exercise events to enable discussion or repositioning: less realistic, of course, but enabling those conducting the exercise to ensure that points are not missed or time lost unnecessarily. Live exercises will most often take place in real time, although they too can be broken up into sections, to allow full examination of each part of the exercise before moving on to the next.[3]

[3] This was done during the Black Swan exercise organised by the United States Coast Guard and the Bahamian authorities in 2013. Evacuation, transfer to places of safety, and various actions at the places of safety and in further support were conducted in discrete sections of the exercise, with players and observers redeploying between ‘acts’. The use of simulators, on the other hand, can save on the ‘dead’ time and expense incurred while live units deploy.

Tabletop, command post and communications exercises can either be conducted in real time, to simulate the time pressures of a real incident, or on a ‘stop-the-clock’ basis.

2.8 Not all exercises have to be live, full-scale affairs. They would probably be too infrequent if they were – and the restrictions placed on live exercises in the interests of safety mean that even a full-scale exercise cannot be complete. They also allow little or no time for discussion or reflection while they are under way. Each exercise format has its strengths and weaknesses and a mix of formats over time is best.

2.9 One recommended approach is to hold a tabletop exercise prior to a live one, enabling discussion before seeing if the plan works in practice. More generally it is recommended that a full-scale live exercise should be the culmination of a series of different types of smaller exercises related to different aspects of the MRO subject. Starting with relatively simple, single-agency exercises the series can build through a succession of tabletops, workshops, and small live exercises testing different parts of the process and including more and more partners to end with a full live multi-agency exercise. Experience has shown that this method gives the best learning curve. 

2.10 The jigsaw analogy is again useful here. If each piece of the puzzle represents one of the organisations involved in the MRO response, its most important links are to its neighbours. These links can be tested for effectiveness cumulatively, until the whole picture envisaged in the planning has been checked.

2.11 And the process does not actually end there, of course. The cycle is a continuous one. As people come and go from organisations or as organisational structures and capabilities change, so the continuous improvement cycle must be maintained – planning, training, checking, reviewing, planning...

3 MRO Exercise Funding

3.1 Live exercises in particular can be very expensive, both at the time (when crew time and fuel costs can be major factors) and during the planning and post-exercise analysis stages, when representatives of many organisations must meet. One of the benefits of simulation exercises is that some, at least, of these costs can be avoided. Communications and some command post exercises can be relatively cheap, but even a tabletop exercise incurs some cost – chiefly in staff time.

3.2 Chapter 26 discusses the justification of training costs, and chapter 16 covers MRO funding issues in general, including the costs of preparing for MROs. The latter chapter cites the IAMSAR Manual, Volume II Chapter 6.15.10:

“There may be resistance to paying the high price in terms of time, effort and funding that preparedness for major incidents entails, particularly as they are rare events. The levels of cooperation, coordination, planning, resources and exercises required for preparedness are challenging and do not happen without the active commitment of SAR authorities, regulatory authorities, transportation companies, sources of military and commercial assistance and others.”

3.3 The exercise planners must be very clear as to their aims and objectives for each exercise and then should choose a format which will allow those aims and objectives to be met most efficiently.

4 IMO Guidance  

4.1 The IAMSAR Manual contains guidance on MRO exercises, at Volume II Appendix C in particular. Volume II Chapter 6.15.13, referring to the guidance in Appendix C, says that:

“MRO planning, preparations and exercises are essential since opportunities to handle actual incidents involving mass rescues are rare. Therefore the exercising of MRO plans is particularly important.”

4.2 Appendix C, which is recommended reading, lists objectives that MRO exercises should ideally achieve, and the steps which are normally carried out during exercise planning.

5 Search and Rescue Cooperation Plans

5.1 SAR cooperation plans are discussed in chapter 25 in the context of the exchange of information required under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, regulation V/7-3, between passenger ships on international routes and SAR authorities. The regulation states that:

“Passenger ships shall have on board a plan for cooperation with appropriate search and rescue services in the event of an emergency. [...] The plan shall include provisions for periodic exercises to be undertaken to test its effectiveness. The plan shall be developed based on the guidelines developed by the [International Maritime Organization].”

5.2 The IMO guidelines referred to in the regulation are currently contained in MSC Circular 1079, Rev.1 ‘Guidelines for preparing plans for cooperation between search and rescue services and passenger ships’. Although the regulation is restricted to ships engaged in international voyages, its provisions are applied by some States to all passenger ships. This is recommended.

5.3 Regarding the exercise requirement, the guidelines say that:

“Both frequency and type of exercise will depend on the circumstances in which the ship operates, availability of SAR service resources, etc. While it is very important that SAR cooperation arrangements be tested from time to time [...] it is also important that the benefits of such exercises are not diluted by over-exercising or by always exercising in particular ways or with particular authorities. Therefore, the ship should not be required to exercise its plan for cooperation more than once in any twelve month period. [...]

“Various types of exercise are acceptable [...] so long as the fundamental principle of cooperation between the ship, the company and SAR services is exercised. Tabletop exercises, SAR seminars and liaison exchanges involving ships personnel, shore-based company emergency response personnel and SAR service personnel can also be beneficial. [...]

“Exercises conducted under this regulation should occasionally include the passenger ship taking on the role of a SAR facility – in particular, the role of On Scene Coordinator.”

5.4 The principles contained in the regulation and IMO’s guidelines may be usefully applied to exercises with other offshore industries. The point about over-exercising is also a valid one in general: if exercises become seen as a chore they will be less effective.

6 Exercise Aims and Objectives

6.1 Agreed aims and objectives should drive any exercise or drill. Exercise format, scenario, players and outcomes will be determined by, and will depend upon, a clear understanding of the aims and objectives set.

6.2 The overall exercise aim(s) should be agreed at the outset by a group of exercise planners drawn from each of the participating organisations. The exercise planners will also decide their own organisation’s detailed exercise objectives in support of the overall aims. The planning group then agrees an exercise type and scenario, which will enable the pre-determined aims and objectives to be achieved. The scenario may be withheld from exercise players before the event, to enhance realism, but the rest of the exercise order (see below) should be promulgated to all.

6.3No-notice’ exercises are possible in some circumstances, and provide a more realistic test of responses, if that is one of the agreed aims. It is, however, important to ensure that anyone tasked without prior notice is clearly informed that this is an exercise and not a real emergency, and that they should know how the exercise will be conducted in general.

7 Exercise Roles

7.1 A number of key roles can be identified in exercise planning and conduct. The various functions should be understood by all participants, to ensure that the exercise runs safely and according to its plan. The roles can be summarised as follows.

o The Exercise Controller chairs the planning group and takes overall responsibility for the conduct of the exercise, including ensuring that risk assessments are completed as necessary.
o Exercise Directors form the planning group, having executive authority with respect to their own organisation's commitment to the exercise. They agree the exercise aims and objectives, and are responsible for planning the scenario and the conduct of exercise play accordingly. They should be given authority to interrupt, alter or halt exercise play as required, especially for safety reasons. They are also responsible for agreeing and disseminating the final report on the exercise.
o The Players are those personnel who respond to the exercise scenario and subsequent events. Players' prime responsibilities are to respond appropriately and safely to all aspects of the exercise. The exercise controller, directors, umpires and observers do not take part in the exercise as players.
o Umpires are nominated personnel who monitor exercise play, report to the Exercise Directors as necessary – especially if they have safety concerns – and contribute to the final report.
o Observers are invited to observe all or part of the exercise. They have no executive role, although they may be asked to contribute to the final report.

8 Safety

8.1 In live exercises it must be clearly established that safety is paramount and that it remains the responsibility of individuals, the commanders of participating units, and parent organisations as appropriate.

8.2 It is the responsibility of the exercise controller to ensure that a risk assessment has been completed and included in the exercise orders. Specific health and safety measures should also be identified: for example, restrictions on the use of exercise ‘casualties’; actions to be taken in the event of bad weather on the day of the exercise; ‘live’ first aid or ambulance cover, and so on.

8.3 Umpires should be clearly identified. Their primary responsibility is to ensure that all participants comply with safety requirements and do not place themselves, or others, in danger.

9 Exercise Orders and Reports

9.1 Exercise orders will be required, explaining where and when the exercise will be held and how it will be run. The orders should be developed by the planning group and distributed to all participants, and other stakeholders, in good time. It is particularly important that any necessary safety measures are explained to all, as discussed above, and that clear arrangements are put in place to ensure that the exercise is not confused with a real emergency if live action and/or communications are planned.

9.2 A thorough and honest review of the exercise, and a complete report on it, are essential. Details of ‘debrief’ meetings, when the exercise results will be analysed; arrangements for collecting debrief reports from participants; and arrangements for collating and disseminating the report should be identified in the exercise order. For suggested headings for exercise reports, see chapter 30.

9.3 The following are suggested headings for exercise orders, to be distributed to all participants. Exercise orders should include:

the exercise title
the type of exercise – for example, ‘live’, ‘tabletop’, etc.
date and start time, with planned duration
participants – a list of all participating organisations and units[4]
[4] It is as important for players to know which units are not part of the exercise as it is to know which are.
the aim(s) of the exercise – as agreed by the planning group
participating organisations’ objectives
scenario – the ‘story’ of the incident which requires an MRO[5]
[5] The circulation of the scenario section of the exercise orders can be restricted so that the players will not know what they will be asked to respond to, even if they are aware that an exercise will be held.
conduct of the exercise – how the exercise will work, including preliminary briefing arrangements and any limitations, and the roles of the controller, directors and observers
communications – which systems, frequencies, telephone numbers etc are in use for exercise purposes, and procedural words to be used to indicate that this is an exercise communication[6]
[6] It is particularly important that any live radio transmissions include a clear indication that this is an exercise, not a real emergency. Transmissions can be prefixed with ‘For exercise’, for example.
safety – general safety provisions and the role of the umpires
exercise start – how the participants will be advised that the exercise is beginning
termination or suspension of the exercise – how the participants will be advised that the exercise is over or if it needs to be temporarily suspended; because of a real emergency, for example
news media arrangements – how the media will participate, as players or to report on the exercise itself
post-exercise meetings and reports – where and when debrief meetings will be held, how participants may contribute to the post-exercise analysis, and how the exercise report will be distributed.

10 Core Components

10.1 The following are basic MRO plan core components that may be selected for inclusion in a full scale or functional exercise.[7]

[7] This list has been kindly provided by Mr Rick Janelle, of the United States Coast Guard.

While not all of these components will be selected, the exercise design team and plan holders will identify those that are applicable.


Demonstrate the ability to activate and document the notification procedures identified in the MRO plans being exercised and/or required by organization-specific procedures.


Test communication links needed for notification / coordination / support.

Internal Communication

Demonstrate the ability to

establish an effective internal communications system: this encompasses communications between the Rescue Coordination Centre, deployed on-scene assets, Incident Command Post, and industry and state Emergency Operations Centres
identify and effectively share critical information 
develop / share a common operational picture at each operational location
dispatch and employ liaison officers to improve the flow of communications

Demonstrate the communications interoperability of local responders:  fire, police, medical, regional, national, international, etc.

External Communication

Demonstrate the ability to

request and receive SAR Plans of Cooperation[8]
[8] See IMO’s MSC Circular 1079, Rev.1.
establish communications with organizations external to the response organization
satisfy the briefing demands of senior management
develop and release situation reports in a format understood by all involved agencies
manage news media demands
notify, manage, and assist the large number of families and friends of passengers and crew
effectively deliver and manage information to evacuees
utilize technology (websites etc) to support high demands for information

Response Mobilization and Management

Demonstrate the ability to

provide an accurate initial assessment of the incident
activate the MRO response plans immediately
assemble the response organization identified in the plans being exercised
activate additional staff to augment or sustain the necessary staffing levels
establish incident facilities to support the response

Unified Command[9]

[9] The Unified Command is a component of the Incident Command System recommended in the IAMSAR Manual: see Volume II Appendix C, ‘MRO Incident Management’. The Unified Command “manages a major incident by establishing common objectives and strategies and co-operatively directing their implementation”.

Demonstrate the ability to

assess the situation and develop an effective response organization structure to meet the demands
quickly develop and communicate joint response priorities, objectives, and tasks
develop and implement incident action plans that include the following MRO-specific items:
- coordinated on-scene response organization to support the distressed vessel’s master
- transit planning for rescue boats to transport evacuees to shore
- safety of evacuees and responders
- security measures required by the incident
- law enforcement measures required by the incident
- an effective evacuee accountability process
- identification, activation and management of adequate landing site(s)
- transportation planning to move evacuees to reception centres
- activation, management and support of emergency medical services
- identification, activation and management of adequate reception centre(s) for the number of evacuees anticipated
- as required, longer-term shoreside support for evacuees: accommodation, medical, etc
- final transportation planning to return evacuees home


Demonstrate the ability to

quickly identify, acquire, and task local response resources
organize, coordinate and direct operations related to the implementation of action plans approved by the unified command
provide continuing assessments on the effectiveness of the tactical operations
coordinate emergency medical services and medical support with local hospitals
direct / support the On Scene Coordinator (OSC)
establish, secure, and direct operations at designed landing sites
assemble and deploy salvage resources required by action plans
assemble and deploy firefighting resources required by action plans
assemble and deploy pollution response resources required by action plans


Demonstrate the ability to

develop short-range tactical plans based on unified command objectives for the operation
consolidate the various concerns and priorities of members of the unified command into joint planning recommendations and specific long-range strategic plans


Demonstrate the ability to

provide the necessary support to both the short-term and long-term incident action plans
provide effective land transportation for all elements of the response
provide effective water transportation for all elements of the response
provide effective air transportation for all elements of the response
provide care, assistance and support for evacuees until returned home, including shelter, food, medical and further transportation needs


Demonstrate the ability to

document the daily expenditures of the organization and provide cost estimates for continuing operations
establish an effective procurement system

Public Affairs

Demonstrate the ability to

form a joint information process and provide the necessary interface between the unified command and the media to provide the ‘best’ information source
release timely, clear, accurate and consistent reports to the media
identify spokespersons to speak to the media, families, etc.
establish a Joint Information Centre

Safety Affairs

Demonstrate the ability to

quickly identify hazards and risks presented by the incident and communicate them to the response organization
monitor all field operations and ensure compliance with safety standards


Demonstrate the ability to document operational and support aspects of the response and provide records of decisions and actions taken

On Scene Coordinator

Demonstrate the ability of the OSC to

effectively communicate with the distressed vessel’s master to support on-board emergency response and manage on-scene rescue assets
manage and track survival and rescue craft, including empty craft
accurately track evacuee numbers and communicate to responders ashore
provide critical information to the unified command ashore

Demonstrate the ability to transfer OSC duties and to communicate the change to the response organization.

Evacuee Accounting

Demonstrate the ability to

quickly obtain an accurate manifest of all persons on board; passengers, crew, and others
safely transfer and care for evacuees in survival or rescue craft
identify, track and account for all evacuees at each stage of the operation
identify handicapped or special need evacuees and plan for their safe evacuation and transfer
communicate accounting information effectively between organizations

Landing Site Management

Demonstrate the ability to

identify suitable landing sites and communicate to response organization
activate and secure designed landing sites, including the ability to
- cordon off the landing site for entry of authorized personnel only
- land the evacuees (uninjured, injured, handicapped) safely at the landing site, taking into consideration the difference in height of the seawall, etc., and the rescue craft’s freeboard
- provide sufficient lighting at the landing site when the operation is carried out at night
- clearly mark those areas designated for triage points and for resting patients
- regulate road traffic in the vicinity of the landing site for the purpose of effective transfer of patients to hospitals or reception centres
integrate medical services into the landing site operations
marshal the news media so as not to undermine the efficiency of the landing site operations.

11 Summary

o Effective MRO exercises are as essential to MRO preparation as planning and training are.
o Exercises can be for demonstration purposes, part of a training programme, or to test plans and training.
o It is important that all exercise participants should be ready to learn from their experience, whether good or bad. Without such openness much of the value of the event will be lost.
o The exercise format chosen should be suited to the agreed aims and objectives. Not all exercises must (or should) be live.
o Exercises can be conducted in real time or on a ‘stop-the-clock’ basis to enable discussion, etc.
o It is recommended that a full-scale live exercise should be the culmination of a series of different types of smaller exercises. Experience shows that this gives the best learning curve.
o SOLAS regulation V/7-3 requires periodic exercises between passenger ships on international voyages and SAR services.
o Agreed aims and objectives should drive any exercise or drill. Exercise format, scenario, players and outcomes will be determined by, and will depend upon, a clear understanding of the aims and objectives set.
o The functions of exercise controller, directors, umpires, observers and players should be understood by all participants.
o In live exercises it must be clearly established that safety is paramount, and that responsibility for it remains with the participants themselves. A risk assessment should be conducted and appropriate health and safety measures identified. Umpires monitor safety and should intervene if necessary; but they do not assume others’ responsibilities.
o Clear exercise orders are required before the event and should be understood by all participants; and a full report should be prepared and shared afterwards.

12 Further Reading

12.1 The IAMSAR Manual provides guidance on exercises, particularly at Volume II Chapter 6.15.9-15 and Appendix C.

12.2 MSC Circular 1079, Rev.1, ‘Guidelines for preparing plans for cooperation between search and rescue services and passenger ships’, contains guidance on the exercises required under SOLAS regulation V/7-3.