By Roly McKie, IMRF IMO Representative and SAR Advisor

In our modern age, search and rescue (SAR) operations are critically reliant on immediate, consistent, and reliable communications. There are several communications options that the mariner, rescue boat and aircraft crews, as well as Rescue Coordination Centres (RCCs), can use for this. The essential Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) list is as follows:

  • VHF DSC (Area A1)
  • VHF Radio
  • MF DSC (Area A2)
  • MF Radio
  • NAVTEX (A2)
  • HF DSC (A3)
  • HF Radio
  • Satcoms – INMARSAT and IRIDIUM voice, text and data (A4)

There are also non-maritime systems such as mobile (cell) telephone voice and text, as well as commercial communications satellite systems that are able to send distress and emergency messages by voice and/or text. These are known as Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SEND) such as SPOT, InReach, YellowBrick, and similar companies and services. These devices are not ‘endorsed’ for use as maritime emergency communications devices, but they are used by those in distress in the maritime environment.

As a result, SAR responders must know how these systems work and how any position and vessel identity information can be obtained from them. Knowing how the maritime communications systems work and providing information is an important skill and knowledge requirement for SAR people. After all, our job is SAR communications and coordination of the response. We need communication to coordinate correctly. In many ways, it does not matter what device or system a person in danger is using so long as they can get their call for help through to the nearest vessel(s) and/or the correct authorities and, in a maritime SAR case, the right (Maritime) Rescue Co-ordination Centre (M)RCC.

SAR Communications is not all about range

People can often see GMDSS communication options as range related, e.g., how far the radio system can ‘reach’. At a basic level, this is true, but there is also the secondary purpose of reaching your intended audience and ensuring all options have been used to get a message out.

For example, NAVTEX is a good tool for ensuring all NAVTEX-equipped craft (not just International Maritime Organization (IMO)-regulated vessels) receive an Initial Distress or Urgency Alert (IDUA). Most vessels and many smaller craft have a NAVTEX receiver on board. This device stores all messages received and alarms with an audible and visual signal to ensure that the persons on the bridge (or the boat) know something important has been received. Therefore, NAVTEX is an excellent tool for ‘texting’ the maritime community about an incident particularly search area coordinates and overdue craft information requests.

The same goes for Medium Frequency (MF) Radio and DSC. The distance or range does not matter.  Even if you only need to communicate 5 or 10 miles offshore, MF Radio is a radio communication medium and can be used to get the message out, such as a Mayday Relay broadcast. MF radio may be particularly useful if there is high terrain in your search and rescue region (SRR) – the signal may reach vessels that may be up rivers or in long sea inlets and behind the terrain. The same goes for High Frequency (HF) radio and DSC. I once heard of a SAR coordination team having problems communicating with a lifeboat out of range of the Very-High Frequency (VHF) coverage they had, not realising they could have used MF radio to resolve their problem.

Many ships have satcom, and even a growing number of smaller leisure and fishing crafts have small satellite terminals and even handheld devices on board that can receive alerts and Enhanced Group Call (EGC) messages.

If you are responsible for SAR communication, take time to consider how to get your important SAR information to the biggest possible audience and use all the relevant comms systems you have available. Use your communications options to ensure you maximise your communication impact not just what is range relevant.


Using ships at sea as communications relay stations

Another possible problem, for example, is when an RCC is trying to locate a missing boat on a voyage. The route takes the vessel outside shore-based VHF coverage and the boat does not have MF or satcom. How do we try to call the vessel as part of an Alert or Urgency phase, when communications searches are being conducted?

One solution is to use vessels at sea, near the likely route of the missing craft, to act as relay stations for the SAR coordinators and responders. We can use AIS services (such as satellite AIS and LRIT options) to locate and identify ships in the relevant area to contact and ask them (by satcom or MF or HF radio) to make VHF radio calls to the missing craft. Their radio horizon will be about 15 to 30 miles, depending on the height of their radio aerials, so they will have good coverage. We could also ask them to rebroadcast, for example, a Mayday Relay broadcast, should this benefit a SAR communications plan.


Sharing of information

SAR coordinators are information managers. Information received from emergency calls may have to be expanded on by asking further questions about an incident, research information if some is missing, and collate, analyse, and process all of the information before taking action.

Sometimes SAR coordinators do not share all the information they have with the responding units and organisations.

It is vital that RCCs brief the responders in detail to ensure everyone has the same situational awareness. Another benefit of this is to bring awareness of the possible challenges the RCC has because of a lack of information.

Presumably, we may sometimes have to withhold sensitive or security-related information for the sake of an individual’s or public safety. However, if it can be shared, it should be done over secure means for example mobile phone, satellite phone or text message.

During a search and rescue (SAR) operation, communication and how we communicate is vital to get the most accurate information from the sender to ensure a rapid response. It is also important to give people in danger useful and important information to help them to survive and be rescued.

One of the critical functions of a Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) is to receive, respond to, process, analyse and manage communications, as well as the information that is provided in those communications.. RCC personnel will, when possible, speak to or text the person(s) in danger. Effective, accurate, precise, timely and efficient communication with everyone involved is a necessity in modern SAR operations.

A critical skill required to do this is the ability to ‘communicate’ with the emergency caller(s) and those involved, and to get vital information from and to them as quickly as possible and without confusion or misunderstanding.

The following key points are based on US Federal Emergency Management Agency guidance for land emergencies, but fundamentally, in my view, apply to the maritime world, too.

When RCCs, lifeboat crew or aircrew speak to the persons in danger or with responders and people with information about the situation, the following key activities and techniques may be required:

  • Communicate safety information to save lives and reduce injury:

People in danger can sometimes panic and may forget to do the simplest things to help themselves. According to a study by the US National Library of Medicine, during an emergency about 15% of people react in an organised way, 15% completely freeze and do not react, whilst the rest (70%) showed different levels of disorganised behaviour.  This is quite alarming as this indicates that the majority of people in an emergency may not react in an organised way.

As a result, SAR responders may have to help them. Giving the proper protective-actions advice, helps people to reduce their risk. For example, assuming we have communications with a distressed craft, advising people to put on their lifejackets and survival suits, prepare their life-raft, take the emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) or personal locator beacons (PLB) with them (and even activate them), use a torch to signal, and take portable radio(s)can lead to a higher survival rate and a better SAR outcome once units arrive on scene or in the search area. RCC personnel are key to this and can save lives by giving  the right advice.

  • Ask the right questions as soon as possible:

You may only have a short time to ask questions before communication is lost. It is therefore critical to use that time effectively. Use a checklist to ensure you do not forget to ask critical questions. If you do not have incident-type checklists, you would be best advised to start creating them.

  • Facilitate the SAR tactical response by calming fears and managing expectations:

People who know what to expect are more likely to follow instructions and enable responders to do their jobs. RCC and SAR unit crews must provide vital information to survivors to enable a fast and effective response by rescue units. For example, a successful operation depends on the manner in which a rescue is conducted, how survivors (and others involved) are informed and provided with information about  what is going to happen and when.

  • Protect property and the environment:

Understanding how to advise ways to mitigate risk to property (vessels) and the environment may lessen the damage inflicted by maritime accidents. Safety of human life always comes first, but many SAR incidents may lead to future environmental impacts if a vessel sinks, or fuel and cargo contents spill into the sea. This type of advice may require a RCC personnel to have appropriate maritime qualifications or detailed training in order to know what advice is needed in a particular context. Some national authorities also have specialist personnel on call to RCCs to give this advice.

  • Educate, inform, warn, and change behaviour and attitudes:

An educated public/mariner will be better  prepared for emergencies. In some ways, this activity is delivered during education campaigns, boat-user training and regulatory inputs. However, informing other mariners at sea, through broadcasts on radio, NAVTEX and satcom EGC broadcasting is another way of informing, warning, and changing or adjusting behaviours.

  • Seek cooperation:

Whether asking for vessels to help with searches, or witnesses to cooperate with investigators, public information is how we can make this happen. We do this directly to the mariner by broadcasting on traditional marine radio systems and by using the right language to encourage compliance with our requests. Wider messaging can also be done on internet websites or through press releases and social media messaging – particularly if we are looking for information regarding an overdue vessel or aircraft.

  • Instil public (Mariner) confidence:

Providing timely, accurate, and understandable information builds confidence in emergency responder competence. Never start transmitting messages until you have checked your information. Do not rush communications except for the transmission of receipt of Mayday/Pan and Mayday Relay broadcasts.

  • If you have nothing more to say, stop talking:

SAR communication is not a chat room. It is meant to provide as much information as possible in the smallest number of words.

  • Communicate in a way that meets the receivers needs:

SAR responders should always be looking to improve their communication skills. Think carefully about what you are asking and how you say it. English is the agreed international language of the sea, but it may not be native to everyone. Some simple advice might include:

  • Keep your messages simple and use appropriate vocabulary. Acronyms or slang terms should be avoided.
  • Ask only one question at a time to avoid overwhelming the person.
  • Pronounce words clearly and use voice intonation.
  • Make use of a MRCC that speaks the language you need. If you have the capability to link telephone to radio or to conference call to a distressed vessel, and you have a language problem, call an RCC with that language and ask them to interpret for you.
  • Use standard business interpreters.
  • Use the Standard Marine Communications Phrases (SMCP) manual. This manual was created as part of IMO Resolution A918/22 to improve communication and understanding between vessels with different languages.
  • Use the International Code of Signals (Interco manual US Edition updated 2020).
  • Use an online translator website or app.

Finally, practice how you communicate information and work on ways to improve your effectiveness in verbal information transfer and questioning techniques. This is an essential skill for SAR people.

Author’s note: This article is the views of the author. If you disagree with or have a viewpoint on anything in this article, the IMRF welcomes professional challenge and different perspectives, experiences, and ideas. Please send your comments or responses to [email protected] We will consider publishing them, with your permission, at a later date.