In September 1994 the passenger ferry MS Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea. There were 964 people on board. Despite a major rescue operation only 137 survived.

“For many of us in SAR the Estonia disaster was a huge wake up call. It was a modern ferry in a part of the world with highly developed search and rescue (SAR) response systems available. It set a lot of people thinking. It set the International Maritime Organization (IMO) thinking,” said David Jardine-Smith, a former IMRF Project Manager and mass rescue operations (MRO) subject-matter expert.

“It was a prime example of all the issues faced by SAR organisations when it comes to tackling MROs. Estonia was a colossally difficult operation. An ordinary ferry master, Esa Mäkelä, and his team on the Silja Europa found themselves running the on scene operation without the initial support that most SAR organisations would wish to give during an MRO,” he added.

David was speaking at this year’s IMRF Mass Rescue Conference, ‘G5’, which took place in June in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The event, which was hosted by the Swedish Sea Rescue Society, was the fifth iteration of the IMRF’s ‘G’ series of conferences, which focus on delivering and exchanging information, good practice and experience in tackling MROs so that SAR organisations can respond to incidents, such as the Estonia disaster, more effectively.

The first conference, G1, took place in 2010. The series has since become a key part of the IMRF’s output to aid SAR organisations plan and prepare for MROs.

For David, who spent 25 years with the UK Coastguard in rescue coordination centres, training and management, retiring as the national organisation’s head of SAR, an MRO is usually a once-in-a-lifetime event for SAR responders.

He emphasised the value of the IMO’s definition of an MRO. Such an operation is “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”. This definition is as true for the most sophisticated SAR organisation as it is for the least developed: some operations are beyond anyone’s normal response capability. David called this “the capability gap” and MRO planning is about finding ways of filling that gap.

He reiterated the need to develop strong relationships with other regional response organisations in order to improve overall MRO capabilities. “An MRO is not the time to exchange business cards. You have to build up relationships with other responders and potential responders before an incident occurs and keep those contacts going,” he noted.

“That is the benefit of events like G5. These conferences are a great opportunity to bring SAR people together to enable them to consider the MRO challenges. It is during events like these that SAR organisations find out about each other’s responsibilities, capabilities and limitations.

“Communication is one of the main problems. Every incident and case study I’ve read highlights issues with communications. Everyone involved in an MRO should know who they have to talk to, and when and how they will exchange information.”

David also highlighted personnel gaps as a significant challenge when dealing with MROs. “It's not just the helicopters or the rescue boats. It’s people. We need to identify where we can find enough people, as well as the other resources necessary, to deal with these types of situations.

“These are the reasons why this IMRF project is so vital. It allows us to learn from people who have had experience of MROs so that we can apply that experience to our own situation, improve our own capabilities, and save more lives at sea.”

The IMRF has released the latest version of its Mass Rescue Operations (MRO) Summary Guidance documents. The documents are available to download from the IMRF’s official MRO website. Please click here to access the documents.

You can read more about the IMRF’s MRO guidance and access additional resources to aid your MRO planning here: