On 2 September 1998 Swissair flight 111, en route from New York to Geneva with 229 people aboard, crashed into St Margaret’s Bay in Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast. There were no survivors. The nature of the crash meant that there could be none. But the SAR response, involving many surface and air SAR units, as well as local fishermen, who were among the first on the dreadful scene, was as for a mass rescue operation. Which needs careful planning.

Canada is a huge country, and very sparsely populated away from its southern cities and towns. Yet its beautiful east and west coasts, its Great Lakes, and now, as the ice recedes, its distant Arctic waters too, are very popular with cruise ships, and there are also many ferries and a constant stream of passenger aircraft on local and intercontinental routes. The Canadian SAR authorities are keenly aware of the need for MRO planning and preparation.

In October the Canadian Coast Guard hosted a major gathering of response organisations in the city of Halifax, just around the corner from St Margaret’s Bay. The IMRF’s MRO project manager, David Jardine-Smith, was invited to attend – and he found the event to be a great success, principally because people came ready to consider the challenges an MRO presents and to discuss, openly and honestly, how those challenges may be met.

The workshop extended over three days and was based on three scenarios previously worked up by the Coast Guard – one for each of three regions; the west and east coasts, and central and Arctic Canada. Attendees spent the majority of their time in breakout groups, with attendees from each of the three regions discussing the problems thrown up by the scenario most relevant to them.

Responders talking to each other before an MRO is required is a vital step toward efficient planning – and that planning is essential to effective response. Nothing will ever make an MRO easy, and no MRO plan can cover every eventuality: there will always be a need for flexibility within a generic plan. But, so long as that plan and their own part in it is understood by all likely responders, an MRO will proceed much better than a make-shift operation ever could.

People cannot be saved in every disaster: Swissair 111 is a reminder of that hard fact. But events such as the Coast Guard’s Halifax workshop are a hugely important part of preparing to save lives in highly complex cases where lives can be saved if we, the responders, are ready.

While in Nova Scotia David was able to visit the Swissair 111 memorial, which looks out over the crash site near Peggy’s Cove. The Swiss flag tied to a railing at the memorial shows that such events do not end when all the SAR units have returned to base. For some people, responders included, they don’t really end at all.