Each year the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – the relevant technical bodies of the United Nations – arrange a meeting of a Joint Working Group (JWG) on SAR. The JWG comprises eight maritime and eight aeronautical SAR experts drawn from member States, and includes observers from other States and from non-Governmental organisations.

The IMRF has long played an active part in the Group’s work, as the world’s leading NGO representing the SAR community.

This year the JWG met in Seattle, USA, from 17-21 September. The IMRF was represented by Stein Solberg, from JRCC Stavanger in Norway (an IMRF member organisation).

A full report of the week’s work will be prepared by the JWG secretariat for consideration by ICAO and IMO – in the latter’s case at the next meeting of the Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation, Communications and SAR (NCSR) in January. Here we present some of the main maritime SAR points discussed by the JWG at this year’s meeting.

The Mediterranean migrant crisis has caused terrible loss of life over the last few years. It has also caused real strains in the maritime SAR system, often driven by border control concerns.

The IMRF takes the view that this is a crisis that can only be solved on land, and that the maritime SAR regulations work well if not impeded or overruled. Some people, however, have expressed concerns about the legal detail of maritime SAR; definitions in particular.

The IMRF led earlier work, on behalf of the JWG, on aligning the definitions of the three phases of emergency, including the distress phase.

These definitions are set out differently in the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue (IAMSAR) Manual and in the two key IMO & ICAO Conventions. Lack of alignment can sow doubt. The JWG has a role to play here as the effective editors of the IAMSAR Manual.

However, the JWG agreed with the IMRF at this year’s session that, although the present position is unsatisfactory, the current IAMSAR definitions should stand until IMO & ICAO decide to align the Convention texts – which the JWG does not have the remit to do.

The IMRF provided information to the JWG on the planning under way for the 2019 World Maritime Rescue Congress. The JWG also noted our ongoing website review, which is intended to improve ease of access to the SAR information we make available.

The intention is that the revised site will be available in time for the Congress and for the publication of the 2019 edition of the IAMSAR Manual, which will refer to the IMRF as a SAR information source.

New Zealand recommended the collation of more detailed information on SAR prevention (and by inference SAR mitigation) initiatives in order to help States better understand and implement effective measures. This is in line with the third of the IMRF’s ‘objects’ as a charity: “promoting public education and awareness regarding safety on water”.

It is another area in which the IMRF’s platform can be used to share information. (Please email [email protected] if you have SAR or maritime safety information to share!)

The JWG noted that the percentage of SAR Points of Contact (SPOCs) that were non-responsive or insufficiently responsive to communication tests remains consistent. We have noted this problem before: emergency beacon signals are picked up and relayed to nominated authorities – but if no-one acts on the alert, people may die.

It is essential that SPOC details are kept up to date, and that the right staff are trained in what to do if an alert is received. A Handbook on Distress Alert Messages for RCCs, SPOCs and IMO Ship Security Competent Authorities and a series of training videos are available at www.cospas-sarsat.int/en/search-and-rescue/programme-videos-en.

The JWG heard from Iridium, outlining their plans to implement Global Maritime Distress and Safety System services. (Inmarsat are currently the only GMDSS service provider.) The use of the Iridium satellite system for SAR communications would be free of charge, as with Inmarsat.

Iridium are planning to issue a survey on how distress alerts are received at present and how RCCs would like to receive them in future. There would also be no need to invest in specific equipment for RCCs since communication could take place through internet services. The JWG discussed connectivity problems, but agreed that information sent electronically should be followed up with a phone call to ensure receipt.

The redevelopment of IMO’s Model Course for SAR Mission Coordinator training, to which the IMRF has contributed as part of a review group, continues. It is hoped that this work will be approved next year, and this Model Course will join its partners, in SAR Administration and On Scene Coordination. Regular review hereafter should be conducted by the JWG, as the courses are based on the IAMSAR Manual.

It was again a full week’s work for the JWG, with many more subjects discussed than we have room to report on here. Our thanks to Stein for ‘wearing the IMRF’s hat’ at this meeting!

The JWG is next scheduled to meet in Chile, 9 to 13 September 2019.