Competence: the ability to do something successfully or efficiently.

The quality or state of having sufficient knowledge, judgment, skill, or strength (as for a particular duty or in a particular respect).

Being competent: Able to do something well.

By Roly McKie, IMRF IMO Representative and SAR Advisor

SAR is a public safety task. People in the maritime environment who need rescue or assistance rely on the SAR system to respond effectively, efficiently, correctly, and rapidly. Like any complex human activity, with many different components, SAR requires that we use trained people to deliver. Also, like any other complicated human task, SAR is subject to weaknesses caused by, for example, loss of or reduction in knowledge, and skills and abilities becoming degraded due to lack of or irregular use.

In most human tasks where complexity and safety are linked, we expect that people are required to maintain (and improve) their skills, knowledge, and proficiency. For example, airline pilots are required to continually undergo monitoring, practical checks of their skills and knowledge, and practice sessions in simulators and other training environments. This is because there are literally people’s lives at stake. In my view, the same can be said of SAR; firstly at the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) that receive distress calls and alerts and which must decide what actions to take to respond. This often means using technical processes and techniques to determine key factors about the incident and ascertain the exact or likely location of the survivors, then coordinate and manage the response. Secondly the rescue units; both air and seaborne must then respond to the call-out. Of course, the mariner at sea also has a role in SAR whenever a ship is called upon to undertake a SAR operation. Their training is also important, particularly as this ‘skill’ is likely to be needed very rarely.

If we think about this further, the safety of the people who have called for help lies in the hands of, firstly, the people who received the call and then the people who crew the ships, aircraft and rescue boats that respond to the scene. If anyone in that system is under-competent or, worse, incompetent, or has a loss of critical skills, knowledge, or proficiency, then this could lead to a failure of the response effort. This has, and can, lead to serious negative outcomes.

SAR is a system. It consists of many components that must interact in complex ways to ensure an effective and reliable response. Humans are involved in all these components and incompetence in any part can lead to failure.

In my view, it is vital that SAR organisations have effective competence- checking processes so that they can evaluate the skills, knowledge and ability of their people regularly so that weakness can be found and rectified. People also know they will be checked and will have personal responsibility for helping to maintain their competencies.

SAR personnel, whether volunteers or full-time staff, must become adept on the systems, processes, procedures, skills, and techniques used by their organisation, and for their individual role and functions. Any lack of ability will lead to bad outcomes eventually. 

The level of competence I am suggesting is not simply a working knowledge. SAR people must have an embedded, active, and practical expertise, and an interest in understanding the inner workings of the tools and processes they use. They must also be able to implement them quickly and without struggling to remember how to do something. An emergency is not the best time to learn.

SAR people can never know when and where the next SAR incident will take place, so they must be ready to respond to any environment and situation, in the worst conditions, day and night. Being competent and ready is vital.

SAR professionals must focus on the fundamentals. To hone and maintain effective competency, people must practice and update the skills, knowledge, and techniques that they are required to undertake. ‘Practice makes perfect’ is an ancient observation; humans (generally) get better the more they do something, and this practice also makes a function or skill reflexive when fatigued or under stress. This reflex response is also a safety process: you will more likely do the right thing at the right time.

Key benefits from practising and exercising include:

  • assurance that someone can do what is required
  • advance preparation for operational response – particularly those things that are not needed to be done very often
  • to improve existing capabilities, skills, knowledge, and techniques
  • enhance interoperability and create standardisation
  • to maintain or increase readiness and responsiveness

The following factors can help to ensure high levels of competence:

·       Clear Job Descriptions and Role Definitions

Detailed job descriptions outlining responsibilities, skills, and qualifications. Clearly identified roles and expectations within the team and organization.

·       Structured Recruitment and Selection

Rigorous recruitment processes to ensure candidates meet the required qualifications and skills. It is important to ensure the organisation has the right people with the right attitudes and aptitudes. Do not cut corners here or pretend that it is the organisation’s role to upskill unsuitable people. A baseline standard of person is needed for SAR.

Effective selection methods such as interviews, technical assessments, and reference checks. SAR is a curious world that requires people who are critical thinkers and who will train well and have the right attitude to maintaining their proficiency and standards.

·       Comprehensive Onboarding and Training

Thorough onboarding programs introducing new employees to organisational culture, values, and procedures. Be sure that people understand they will have obligations to maintain their competence and that there will be consequences for not complying.

Technical training programs focusing on specific skills, knowledge, techniques, and tools required for the role.

Mentorship and shadowing opportunities for hands-on learning.

On the job training programmes. These are critical for SAR because of the often-limited number of SAR incidents that occur thus reducing exposure and experience opportunities.

·       Continuous Learning and Skill Development

Ongoing training sessions to keep personnel updated with the latest industry trends, processes, and technologies.

Encouragement or mandating of self-directed learning through online courses, workshops, and conferences.

Skill development programs tailored to individual career paths within the organisation.

·       Regular Technical Performance Evaluations and Feedback

Periodic technical performance evaluations to assess skills, knowledge, proficiency, achievements, and areas for improvement. These should be mandatory. A professional organisation should not pull back from requiring its people to prove their competence periodically.

Constructive feedback from supervisors and peers to facilitate continuous improvement.

Recognition and rewards for accomplishments, encouraging employees to maintain and enhance their competence.

·       Access to Resources and Support

Access to necessary tools, software, and resources required for the job.

Adequate support from colleagues, mentors, and supervisors when facing challenges.

Opportunities for collaborative projects to enhance teamwork and problem-solving skills.

·       Promotion of a Learning Culture

Encouragement of knowledge sharing among employees through regular meetings, seminars, or internal forums. Sharing of lessons identified is also important so that process and procedure can be changed where necessary.

Fostering a culture where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities, promoting innovation and experimentation. Reward those who speak up about their errors and have learned from it.

Recognition and celebration of achievements and milestones, reinforcing the importance of competence development.

·       Career Development and Progression

Career development plans outlining potential career paths within the organisation.

Guidance and support for employees to pursue further education or certifications related to their roles.

Opportunities for internal promotions and lateral moves to broaden skills and experiences.

·       Work-Life Balance and Well-being

Recognition of the importance of a healthy work-life balance to prevent burnout and maintain long-term competence.

Supportive policies and programs promoting employee well-being, mental health, and stress management.

Adaptability and Change Management

Training employees to adapt to changes in technology, processes, and industry standards. It is important to update people. Things change, often quite quickly.

Providing resources and support during organisational changes to ensure employees can cope with new challenges.


There are increasing reports and discussions in the world about a ‘competence crisis’ in various industries, leading to mistakes and accidents. Let us make sure that SAR does not suffer from that problem. The implementation of simple competence maintenance processes, and a focus on competence as a priority, can lead to incredibly positive effects.