Mass Rescue Operations

Philosophy & Focus

The International Maritime Rescue Federation Mass Rescue Operations Project:

Mass rescue operations: the capability gap


The IMRF’s mass rescue operations (MRO) guidance is provided in 30 separate chapters. For downloadable documents referenced in this chapter please go to the 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:

the nature of the ‘capability gap’
assessing ‘normal capability’
the identification of capability gaps
planning to fill capability gaps by:
cooperating regionally
using additional resources, and/or
extending survival times

1 The Capability Gap

1.1 The IMO define a mass rescue operation as “characterised by the need for immediate response to large numbers of persons in distress such that the capabilities normally available to the SAR authorities are inadequate”. In other words, the SAR authorities do not have enough resources themselves to enable them to handle a mass rescue operation. There is a ‘capability gap’.

1.2 If the IMRF’s MRO project can be said to have a single aim, it is to help SAR authorities and other responders to fill this capability gap. To say that such an operation is ‘too difficult’ is, we believe, unacceptable. The IMO does not define an MRO as being too difficult. Instead, it says that “the capabilities normally available are inadequate”. Implicit in this definition is the idea that additional capabilities can be identified which will enable responders to conduct an MRO successfully. We have to ‘think outside the box’.

1.3 It is also important to remember what ‘rescue’ means, for it is, of course, rescue that we are trying to achieve. Rescue is not just picking people up from survival craft or from the water.

1.4 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”

and they define a ‘place of safety’ as

“a location where rescue operations are considered to terminate; where the survivors' safety of life is no longer threatened and where their basic human needs (such as food, shelter and medical needs) can be met; and, a place from which transportation arrangements can be made for the survivors' next or final destination. A place of safety may be on land, or it may be on board a rescue unit or other suitable vessel or facility at sea that can serve as a place of safety until the survivors are disembarked at their next destination.”

1.5 A successful MRO provides for all of this – and the IMO’s list of ‘basic human needs’ is not exhaustive. For further discussion of what constitutes a ‘place of safety’, see chapters 10 & 11.

2 Normal Capability

2.1 What constitutes a mass rescue operation depends on what capabilities are normally available. If there are only a few SAR units available, for example, and/or they do not have much carrying capacity, the number of people at risk need not be very great before an MRO response is called for[1].

[1] A SAR unit is defined by the IMO as “a unit composed of trained personnel and provided with equipment suitable for the expeditious conduct of search and rescue operations.”

2.2 The IMO definition of an MRO refers, wisely, to SAR capability. It is not only the number and size of local SAR units that count: it is their capability at the time an accident occurs. Are they in service? Are their crews adequately trained? Can they operate in the prevailing conditions? Can they reach the scene of the incident within survival times? If not, they should not be considered part of the ‘normal capability’. The availability and capacity of ‘places of safety’ are also issues that require careful analysis.

2.3 And MRO capability is not all about sending sufficient rescuers to the scene – far from it. It is about coordinators and support staff too, and reliefs for these people and the rescue craft crews for longer term operations. It is about shoreside resources as well: having enough ambulances and other transport vehicles, and places to take the rescued to, and means of providing medical and welfare aid, and of dealing with the dead. It is also, importantly, about communications – having enough people to handle masses of information rapidly, correctly, and probably for long periods. It is partly about equipment, of course; but it is crucially about people – people who are prepared to handle such a difficult task (because they have been trained for it). Much of this resource will be additional to what is normally required. An MRO response needs to be extra-ordinary.

2.4 Thinking through the IMO definitions and what ‘the capabilities normally available’ really are is the first step on the road to developing a viable MRO plan.

3 Identifying Capability Gaps

3.1 SAR capability will vary geographically and according to the conditions at the time an incident occurs. Capability will be higher in an area well-supplied with rescue units and in good weather, sea and visibility conditions; and lower otherwise. Many areas of the world are beyond the range of designated rescue units. Other areas cannot be reached by sufficient rescue units within survival times. Bad conditions – poor visibility and heavy sea states in particular – will hamper rescue, or may even prevent it.

3.2 SAR capability should be assessed and mapped in order to contribute to risk analysis and MRO planning: see chapter 3. It may then be found that the likelihood of an MRO being required is higher than had at first been thought.

4 Filling Capability Gaps

4.1 The uncertainties associated with the types of incident that may give rise to an MRO, where such an incident might occur, what the prevailing weather and sea conditions and time of day will be, and what SAR facilities will actually be available at the time, mean that planning for MROs should be generic. That said, the plans should still identify areas of enhanced risk, including areas where the potential capability gap is wider, and any areas of enhanced capability.

4.2 Remember that ‘capability gaps’ are not just about SAR craft and their crews and support teams but also rescue coordination centre staff and a very wide range of shoreside emergency response resources. They are about gaps in communications too. In an MRO we don’t just need more rescue craft. We need more people (trained people), extensive shoreside facilities, and enhanced communications capabilities.

4.3 The primary aims of MRO planning are to identify the gaps, which must be done locally, and to identify the means of filling them. As regards the at-sea response there are essentially three means available. We will consider each in turn.

5 Regional Resources

5.1 One solution to a shortfall in SAR capability is to ‘work with the neighbours’. A small State, for example, may have only a few SAR units, meaning that many incident types may constitute an MRO. Other States nearby may have the same problem. Agreeing to share resources, however – and, very importantly, agreeing on the details of how this will be done – can significantly improve SAR capability for all.

5.2 The same is true of better-resourced States: the only difference is the point at which an incident is large enough to qualify as an MRO. Planning to work with other States in the region, where this is possible, will enhance SAR capability.

5.3 There are limits to the practicality of this approach, mostly to do with distance, SAR unit range, and expected survival times. Nevertheless, it should always be considered. Guidance on the use of regional resources may be found in chapter 14.

5.4  It is important to note that bilateral or multi-lateral agreements of this sort require careful prior planning by all the authorities concerned. Ad hoc requests for cross-border assistance are likely to run into difficulties and delays. Processes for requesting assistance should be carefully worked out beforehand.

6 Additional Rescue Resources

6.1 A more general solution to the problem of a shortfall in SAR capability is to identify additional resource locally. It may be that, as a result of the risk analyses conducted at an early stage in the planning process, the authorities will decide to provide additional SAR units, thereby removing some categories of incident from the list of those which will require an MRO response. This would be an excellent result – but our main concern here is with those incidents that remain beyond normal SAR capability.

6.2 If sufficient additional designated units cannot be provided, other resources must be identified. In maritime MROs these will chiefly be drawn from shipping in the area.

6.3 What shipping may be available and useful will vary according to the circumstances – but all classes of shipping should be considered, from fishing vessels and leisure craft to ships of all kinds and sizes. In SAR such vessels are sometimes referred to as ‘additional facilities’, ‘vessels of opportunity’ or ‘Good Samaritans’. They are distinguished from SAR units as defined by the IMO, which are “composed of trained personnel and provided with equipment suitable for the expeditious conduct of search and rescue operations”. ‘Vessels of opportunity’ are not designed or equipped, nor are their crews trained, specifically for SAR. But under international maritime regulations[2] such vessels still have a duty to assist if they can.

[2] Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention Chapter V regulation 33 applies to nearly all ships – and the operators of exempted vessels are encouraged to comply with the spirit of the regulation too.

6.4 In some cases – ferries, government ships, harbour craft or offshore industry vessels, for example – specific vessels can be identified in particular areas which can, and should, be included in MRO planning, with their operators’ and crews’ active involvement. In most cases, however, shipping will be in the incident area by chance. Their operators and crews cannot be involved in the planning process for simple reasons of practicality – but the generic use of such shipping must still be included in the plan itself.

6.5 General guidance on the use of vessels of opportunity in MROs may be found in chapters 13 & 22.

7 Extending Survival Time

7.1 A third, and perhaps less obvious, solution to the capability gap problem is to plan to extend the time available for rescue. This can be done by providing support to those on scene.

7.2 At the basic level, support packages can be delivered to people in distress to improve their chances of survival until they can be rescued. Examples include dropping liferafts, food, water and other survival equipment from aircraft, or from ships unable to recover people in the prevailing conditions. Fixed-wing aircraft will usually have a greater range than other shore-based units. They cannot conduct the ‘retrieval’ or recovery part of rescue, but they can deliver supplies that will keep people alive until other SAR facilities arrive on scene. This activity has to be planned for, however, and air-droppable material made readily available. Similarly, ships arriving at the scene may be able to provide life-saving assistance even if recovery is not, or not yet, possible. But this too should be thought about beforehand. See chapter 13 and the IMO’s MSC Circular 1182, ‘Guide to Recovery Techniques’[3].

[3] MSC.1/Circ.1182/Rev.1. See also the IMO’s Pocket Guide to Recovery Techniques, 2014 edition.

7.3 It may also be possible to provide assistance which will mitigate the risk to people on scene so that they do not need a ‘mass rescue operation’ in the traditional sense. We do not have to wait until people are in survival craft or in the water before responding. Providing the right sort of specialised assistance promptly may prevent an accident escalating to the point at which evacuation is necessary. Examples include taking a disabled passenger ship in tow, or providing firefighting teams to one on fire.

7.4 This 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 – if an evacuation has occurred – aboard survival craft. As noted in chapter 1, the IMO’s definition of rescue can 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’.

7.5 Chapter 15 discusses the use of specialist resources, including providing on-board support.

8 People, and Other Additional Resources

8.1Normal’ capability applies as much to other parts of the response network as to the rescue at sea. The whole of the likely response should be considered in determining what extra resources may be required and where they are to be found.

8.2 Absolutely key to successful response are people – the right people (pre-selected and trained) in sufficient numbers, with equally capable reliefs available for them should the operation be a long one; which in many cases it will be. The Rescue Coordination Centre for the area, for example, is unlikely to be staffed to cope with an MRO without special arrangements being brought into play – extra staff and/or a re-organisation of responsibilities. Shoreside emergency control rooms will be similarly placed. Landing sites and reception centres ashore will have to be staffed, again probably for a lengthy period. Extra medical staff will be needed; drivers, welfare staff, interpreters, security personnel – the list is a very long one. Each responding organisation will have to look at what its responsibilities are and what its roles might be in such an emergency, and plan to ensure that sufficient people will be available to undertake them.

8.3 With the people comes the need for the resources to enable them to do their jobs – communications equipment, transport facilities, medical equipment and hospital resources, landing sites, buildings that can be used as reception centres or for other response functions, food, water, blankets and clothing, sanitary facilities… Again the list is very long.

8.4 MRO planning partly entails determining what resources are required, including human resources, and then agreeing on where those resources can reliably be found.

9 Planning to Fill the Capability Gap

9.1 The common theme in the foregoing discussion is planning. Some of the proposals outlined above require SAR authorities to provide physical resources to help fill the ‘capability gap’ – stockpiled survival equipment, for example. However, all these means of filling the gap require careful thought at the planning stage.

9.2  For regional arrangements to work effectively, agreements have to be made and operating procedures worked out between the regional partners. If planning to use ‘vessels of opportunity’, alerting and coordination procedures should be decided beforehand. How will the communications structure work? What can vessels in the area reasonably be expected to do? Are there particular groups of vessels – ferries, for example – with which direct planning can be done? How can we mitigate the effects of an accident by providing support to people on scene, so that they do not have to abandon their ship or so that they can survive for longer while arrangements are made to pick them up? And what extra resources are needed ashore – equipment, places and people – to enable the full operation to be successful?

9.3 There are ways of filling the ‘capability gap’. But they must be planned for.

10 Summary

In planning for MROs we should consider the full IMO definitions of ‘rescue’, ‘place of safety’ and ‘mass rescue operation’.
Careful and honest analysis of normal SAR capability is required, in terms of trained people as well as equipment.
SAR capability varies geographically and according to the prevailing conditions.
In an MRO, the SAR capabilities normally available are inadequate: there is a ‘capability gap’.
MRO planning includes identification of the additional resources needed to fill this gap, and deciding how they should best be used.
The planning should include using ‘vessels of opportunity’ in the incident area.
The coordinated use of regional resources should be considered: ‘working with the neighbours’.
Also consider how survival times might be extended by providing support to those in distress prior to their rescue.
And think through all the responses required, ashore as well as at sea. As well as rescue resources other additional equipment will be needed, as well as access to landing sites, reception centres, etc.
Most important of all will be people – the right people, and enough of them.

11 Further Reading

11.1 See chapters 5, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16 & 26.

11.2 For specific discussion of ships on scene providing support to extend survival times, see IMO’s Pocket Guide to Recovery Techniques, the text of which is also available in MSC Circular MSC.1/Circ.1182/Rev.1.