By Clay Evans, maritime historian and retired Canadian Coast Guard lifeboat coxswain

The history of lifesaving at sea involves a litany of large-scale maritime disasters, many of which became the catalyst for the establishment of the original local lifeboat stations and the development of national “shipwreck” institutions around the world.

One would think that in recent years, with the advent of modern safety requirements and navigation and communication technologies, the need to respond to a maritime SAR incident on a massive scale was a thing of the past. Sadly, this is not the case. Even with the prevalence of air travel, travel by sea remains a major mode of transport around the globe and the number and size of both passenger vessels and cruise ships continues to grow in conjunction with the global population.

Although far less frequent, tragic incidents, such as the loss of the ferry Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987 off Zeebrugge, the capsizing of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic in 1994 with the loss of over 900 souls, and the capsizing of the passenger vessel Sewol of Jeju Island, Korea in 2014, continue to occur. In addition, there are many other forms of Mass Rescue Operations (MRO) that can occur in the maritime realm such as those connected to natural disasters, the climate crisis, aeronautical incidents, the effects of war and other large-scale humanitarian incidents including the ongoing migrant global migrant crisis.

An empty liferaft from the ferry Estonia which capsized in the Baltic in 1994 with the loss of approximately 900 lives. Credit: Finnish Maritime Authority 

Beginning in the late 1980s, particularly in the aftermath of the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) began a concerted effort to conduct a Passenger Ship Safety Review with an emphasis on existing standards in international maritime safety such as those contained in the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, as well as reviewing recommendations and guidelines for planning and methods of marine SAR response should these large-scale incidents occur.

Additional components of this work included the establishment of the International Safety Management (ISM) Code for shipping companies and the development of the integrated International Aeronautical and Maritime SAR (IAMSAR) manuals. Given that the International Lifeboat Federation (ILF) had been granted non-governmental consultative status by the IMO on all matters concerning maritime SAR in 1985, representatives of the organization, including CEO Gerry Keeling, served on the multi-organizational correspondence group on these developments.

Left to right, Past Chairs of the ILF and the IMRF, Michael Vlasto and Rolf Westerstrom who were both instrumental in initiating the MRO Project, in conversation in 2010 with Capt Esa Mäkelä, formerly the Master of the Baltic ferry Silja Europa and On Scene Commander for the Estonia case, in 1994. Credit: David Jardine-Smith/IMRF

Following this comprehensive work, in February  2003, the IMO published a circular entitled “Guidance for Mass Rescue Operations”, which defined a MRO as a low probability, high consequence SAR event that “involves the need for immediate response to a large number of persons in distress, such that the capabilities normally available to the search and rescue authorities are inadequate.” In 2005, IAMSAR was updated to include a specific section on MRO.

In 2007, at the first World Maritime Rescue Congress (WMRC), held in Gothenburg, Sweden, the ILF evolved into the broader-based International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF), which aimed to represent all elements of maritime SAR beyond seaborne such as the aeronautical, coordination and shoreside response components. Recognizing that a mass rescue event in most cases involves all of these maritime SAR sectors, the IMRF began its initial efforts to raise the profile of the need to plan and prepare for MROs internationally.

In 2009, Michael Vlasto, then Chair of the IMRF, brought David Jardine-Smith onboard. Jardine-Smith had recently retired from UK’s Maritime and Coast Guard Agency (MCA), where he had been part of the UK delegation to the IMO on all things maritime SAR. Planning began almost immediately for the first-ever international MRO Conference, known as G1, which took place in Gothenburg in 2010 and was the forerunner for four more very successful conference/workshops, the most recent being the G5 MRO Conference in 2022.

In 2011, the second WMRC took place in Shanghai where the subject of MROs became one of the primary topics of discussion and it was at this point that a decision was made to formalize the IMRF’s work and officially begin what would become the full “MRO Project”. To quote David, “It was clear from these two events that there was an appetite for collating and sharing information and experience on maritime MROs. The IMRF’s full MRO project started up as a consequence.”

The primary objectives of the project were to work with the membership and the international maritime SAR community, including the IMO, to develop a set of MRO guidelines and procedures to help coastal states plan and prepare for such large-scale emergencies, as well as construct an online resource library and provide direct training where required.

Since 2011 there has been a MRO topic session at each WMRC including at the most recent congress that took place in Rotterdam in 2023. As the project progressed, so too did the level of expertise on the subject and various MRO courses and workshops have been provided under the auspices of the IMRF and its member organizations around the globe including in Uruguay, Chile, Morrocco, Bangladesh and in other locations in Africa. Similar MRO courses have been supported by the IMRF’s Asia Pacific Regional Centre (APRC) in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

The IMRF has worked with its member organizations to hold MRO workshops around the world including in Montevideo, Uruguay in 2012. Credit: David Jardine-Smith/IMRF

Starting in 2016, the IMRF, with support from its member organizations, and in particular from the Swedish Sea Rescue Society (SSRS) and Chalmers University in Gothenburg, began its series of very popular MRO Subject Matter Expert (MRO-SME) courses, which, with the exception of the pandemic years, have been carried out annually, with the latest scheduled for Southampton in June. 

The culmination of much of this extensive work was the publication, both online and in print of the IMRF’s Mass Rescue Operations Guidance Manual, a 30-chapter reference text on all things MRO that expands on basic IAMSAR MRO references, providing much more comprehensive strategic, tactical and operational material for maritime SAR providers to develop response plans and conduct actual MROs. 

In 2023, the IMRF established a MRO Working Group, composed of subject-matter experts from several member organizations, to review the existing guidelines and work towards developing enhanced MRO reference and training tools as a new phase of the IMRF’s MRO Project.

No coastal state is immune from the potential of an MRO occurring on their doorstep or on adjacent waters and it is imperative that maritime SAR organizations, as the likely first responders in such scenarios, continue to work as national advocates on their respective MRO files. The key to a successful response to a MRO is preparation and planning and like most large-scale emergency events, because they happen so infrequently, this kind of preventative work is often put on the back burner. From the perspective of the IMRF, one of our primary objectives is to keep a spotlight on this important file and to continue to learn and to develop tools that will help the global maritime SAR community prepare for that rare but inevitable large-scale event and hopefully save as many lives as possible.