Mass Rescue Operations

A Mass Rescue Operation is a low probability, high consequence disaster that can result in significant loss of life. An MRO incident is both challenging and complex, because it’s likely to involve multi-agency coordination, limited available resources and very large numbers of people needing to be rescued.

Tom Gorgol is an MRO subject matter expert and we’ve asked him about his role with the U.S Coast Guard and the challenges involved in these complex SAR operations. 

Tom Gorgol

Could you tell us a bit about your current role?

I am the Coast Guard’s Program Manager for Mass Rescue Operations.  I have overall responsibility for ensuring the U.S. Coast Guard is prepared to effectively and efficiently respond to a mass rescue event. 

This means developing Coast Guard policy that provides guidance for the development of mass recue plans within each of our nine Search and Rescue Regions (SRR).

I also obtain case studies and lessons learned from real world MRO events and exercises, compiling that data, then looking for areas in which the U.S. Coast Guard can improve its MRO response preparedness, whether that is a training element, the need for the revision of current MRO plans, updating current policy, or recommending and seeking additional personnel and/or resources.

To support our MRO preparedness, I network with passenger ship, ferry and passenger aircraft representatives and companies to raise awareness concerning MRO response operations, whole-of-community preparedness, and organizing MRO exercises.

In the last five years, I have assisted in facilitating exercises with several passenger ship, ferry and passenger aircraft companies which has resulted in a better overall understanding concerning the roles and responsibilities during an MRO.

One part of my job that I enjoy the most is assisting other nations in the development of a formalized MRO program, or in facilitating MRO seminars, workshops, and table-top exercises. It is always an honour when our program is asked to assist in any capacity, because in the MRO/SAR community, we need to help each other in any way possible by sharing best practices and lessons learned.

This not only improves an agency’s MRO response posture, but also ultimately improves the global SAR system. We are a global community of SAR partners, forever growing and learning.

How long have you been with the U.S. Coast Guard?

Prior to my current position as Coast Guard MRO program manager, I served 21 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, with nine years of that time spent in Rescue Coordination Centers; successfully prosecuting[CS1]  over 1500 Search and Rescue cases.

Your role/career with the USCG sounds very overarching – what made you specialise in Mass Rescue Operations?

Mass Recue Operations are unique, requiring a significant amount of coordination, interaction and engagement between multiple SAR authorities, support agencies and organizations. It’s this uniqueness that intrigued me.

I like a good challenge and there is nothing more challenging than trying to bring together multiple agencies, organizations and volunteers and somehow get them to work in unison during a disaster event. For me, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a good plan come together, whether it is simply getting multiple agencies into one room and having basic MRO discussions, or seeing a plan effectively executed during a real world event.

How do you really plan for an MRO (briefly)?

That is a great question. MRO planning involves many aspects. First and foremost it involves the senior leadership of any organization taking the initiative in making MRO planning a priority. Just like with any organizational culture, senior leadership needs to get the “buy-in” from all levels of the organization in order to be successful in MRO planning. 

Beyond that, the MRO planning process comes down to identifying the gaps and weaknesses in the response organization and available resource capabilities to manage the rescue of hundreds, if not thousands of survivors. An MRO is defined as, “when capabilities normally available to SAR authorities are inadequate.” 

This is the challenge.  Most SAR authorities, including the U.S. Coast Guard, cannot effectively respond to a maritime MRO incident alone, but needs the support of other SAR authorities, organizations, and volunteers, both shore side and at sea. [1]

[1] International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue Manual, Volume II, full definition of MRO. “A mass rescue operation (MRO) is one that involves a need for immediate assistance to large numbers of persons in distress such that capabilities to normally available to SAR authorities are inadequate”. (pg 6-14, section 6-15.1.)

Where are the most common sticking points? 

One of the biggest issues I commonly see is that SAR services and organizations attempt to tackle the MRO planning process as a single entity, working in a vacuum, and not reaching out to other stakeholders that would assist in MRO planning, coordination, and response. 

The rescue of survivors is only one portion of an MRO event that may also involve medical triage, survivor accountability, media relations, safety/security, transportation, landing site management, and possible environmental concerns. 

Because of the multiple facets of a mass rescue operation, I consider the planning process is a whole-of-community effort.  

Whether developing of a plan, or participating in an MRO exercise, all of the key stakeholders, response services and organizations should be included to ensure the best cooperative effort and to minimize the confusion during an actual response. When all the involved stakeholders are included in the planning process, this ensures a unity of effort:

Every stakeholder understands their respective roles, responsibilities, and jurisdictional requirements and limitations. 

When an MRO occurs, then is not the time to wonder who is responsible for the various response components. This will lead to further confusion and potentially delay the response.

What kind of MRO training exercises do you plan for the USCG, who is involved and how often do they take place? 

The U.S. maritime SAR regions for which the Coast Guard is responsible, are divided into nine SAR regions (SRRs). 

Each SAR Coordinator for his or her SAR region is required by Coast Guard policy to conduct at least two MRO exercises within a five-year period, with one a full-scale exercise. 

However, this is a minimum requirement and as a whole, the Coast Guard goes beyond this minimum. For example, in 2019, the Coast Guard conducted over 40 MRO exercises.

What kind of liaison do you maintain with other agencies to maintain preparedness?

I spend a lot of time networking with the cruise line industry in order to maintain a level of understanding of their operations.

In addition to the cruise line industry, I also work with major passenger airline companies on MRO response preparedness matters.

I think it is invaluable to collaborate with any airline company that has a maritime nexus.

We recently conducted a seminar/workshop with a major carrier, which proved to beneficial, not only to the Coast Guard, but for the airline as well. During the seminar/workshop, both the Coast Guard and the airline were able to achieve a better understanding of how to effectively coordinate and conduct a maritime MRO with one of their passenger aircraft.

This engagement was extremely valuable because as SAR organizations, we normally do not have a clear understanding of the role industry has during an MRO, but through these engagement opportunities, we get a clearer understanding of the resources they can provide in coordinating an MRO response.

What would you say to anyone leading a SAR service (particularly a SAR service in the early stages of being established), with very little resources and no plans in place for an MRO scenario? 

Over the years, I have seen SAR organizations worldwide that may lack the resources necessary to respond to an MRO. Just like managing any SAR incident, managing an MRO is no different, just on a larger scale.

It really comes down knowing and using all the resources that may be available. While a SAR service may not have the resources, they need to engage other SAR services, fishing fleets, volunteers, other government services and industry stakeholders that may be able to assist in a SAR case, as well in response to an MRO.  Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” solution.

My advice would be to not manage the response to an MRO as a single organization. Continue to network with the various stakeholders in order to achieve a cohesive and comprehensive plan. 

To read more about MRO, just click on the following link for a recent article (2020) published by Thomas Gorgol and Richard Button; Understanding the Challenge: Mass Rescue Operations at Sea.

Save the Date: The IMRF G5 MRO Conference

The 5th IMRF International Mass Rescue Conference will be held 17-19 October 2021 in Gothenburg, Sweden. The theme of the mass rescue operations conference will be 'Sharing Experience in Challenging Times' and the event is hosted by the Swedish Sea Rescue Society (SSRS).

This popular event will start with a live exercise, experienced experts will discuss real life MRO case studies and the challenges of managing an MRO incident and multi-agency response.

The event will also include for the first time, advice on safeguarding the mental health of SAR responders and latest best practice on conducting safe SAR operations during a pandemic.

NB. the event will be online/virtual if COVID-19 travel restrictions are in force.

Click on the following link to visit the G5 Conference event page.