As the first of a regular blog for the IMRF, this month we have interviewed Dean Lawrence, IMRF Chairman. 

Dean was appointed in June 2019 for a four-year term. 

He has extensive hands-on operational experience gained over a career spanning more than 31 years, including marine search and rescue, rescue vessel operations, SAR communications and SAR incident management.

What Made You Choose a Career in Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR)?

Like many Kiwi’s, I spent my childhood in and out of boats, but when I bought my first boat I thought I should do a training course to understand the maritime rules and to increase my competence. 

One day the tutor mentioned that the local coastguard centre was looking for volunteers. 

I was a Registered Master Builder by trade, but I went along thinking I would give a little time during my weekends to help and then one thing led to another.

The coastguard in New Zealand covers everything from running the regional communication centres for close to shore VHF communications, to conducting sea rescues in most coastal areas and some inland waters.

They are also are the main providers of maritime education courses for the recreational boatie. I am based in Auckland, (New Zealand’s largest city) on the North Island of New Zealand. 

It’s one of the busiest waterways in New Zealand with a huge recreational and commercial boating population.

Our teams cover the upper half of the North Island and during the summer peak periods, our communication centres receive a trip report from a boat every 25 seconds.

I have worked in almost every role, from basic radio operator, to duty officer running the centre, to Maritime SAR Coordinator responsible for any major incidents in the water during my duty period. 

This is still my role today, along with being a rescue vessel skipper in my local unit operating out of the Manukau Harbour and covering the West Coast.

On the administration side I have been a National Board member, completed a three year term as President of Coastguard New Zealand and am now continuing as a National Board member, and I joined the IMRF in 2015.

I also had a 10 year period during my volunteer time, where following a career change I worked as Operations Manager and then CEO of the Northern Region of Coastguard New Zealand, but I have always maintained my volunteer contribution.

Most of our rescues are focused on the recreational boat user fraternity, there’s a massive boating population in New Zealand, 75-80% of our call-outs are preventative SAR - a flat battery, not enough fuel, user error, etc., and then the remaining percentage are genuine SAR situations. 

Around New Zealand’s coastline we have many significant and dangerous coastal bars at the entrance to harbours and many boat users get into trouble in this vicinity.

Our Coastguard unit responded to a very serious incident last year which later won an IMRF Award (read about it here). I was in the second boat that responded, the local Surf Club of which I am a member, also responded.

What Have Been the Highlight(s) of Your Career So Far?

Operationally, I am most proud of the fact that I have been involved in rescues where my contribution as part of the team has meant that people have come home safely to their families and loved ones.

On the administration side, there are two things I regard as highlights:

1)  Working for Coastguard Northern Region in 2004. I helped to grow the organisation and successfully integrated 25 separate units into one cohesive operating region, substantially upgrading the fleet and communications network, while ensuring the financial sustainability of the region.
2) Secondly, when I took up the role of President of Coastguard New Zealand, there were many internal challenges and issues, but I am confident that when I finished the role three years later, the organisation was in a much better place in terms of cohesion, engagement and its financial footing.

Which Parts of Your Career Have Been the Most Challenging?

New Zealander’s love the water, it’s an integral part of our culture.

But our coastline is very varied, there are large internal waterways, sheltered coves, and off much of North or South Island it’s just wide-open ocean. 

Our climate varies from Sub Tropical to Sub Antarctic and depending on the season our weather and sea conditions can vary greatly.

Coastguard New Zealand runs all the SAR operations around the coastline covering all recreational boating. 

We have over 2,500 volunteers and 61 independent units – all separate legal entities – melding all of that into a single cohesive organisation is a real challenge. 

But having said that, it’s mostly positive, we’re incredibly lucky to have hundreds of volunteers with varied skill sets, experience and knowledge, and they are all have passion for the work and continually put their lives on the line to save lives at sea.

What Are the Biggest Issues for Coastguard New Zealand – And Are Those Issues Specific to New Zealand?

Our biggest issue is universal – it’s funding.

Coastguard New Zealand is a registered charity, we have supporter members, we apply for funding from various grant giving bodies, we operate on a consolidated budget of about NZ$20 million with about $4 million coming from Government sources, but the demands on our volunteers’ time are just growing and growing.

We provide SAR services 24/7, 365 days a year, and while activity used to be focused at weekends with a peak in the summer, now it’s all week, and all year round, and 75% of those call-outs are not critical… in fact our nickname is ‘the AA[1] of the sea’, but in reality it is preventative SAR, because you cannot get out and walk home.

[1] The Automobile Association, an entity famed for its road break-down recovery.

Added to that, I would say the administrative burden is increasing, with such a big volunteer force we have massive health and safety responsibilities, our legal compliance and certification requirements are increasing too.  

Our volunteers are still predominantly male, but with more and more women joining and an increasing number of female skippers.

Our volunteers also tend to be in their more mature in years, often with considerable boating experience, which makes them very valuable operationally. 

We are seeing more younger people keen to support us, but the challenge is that everyone wants to save lives at sea, and actually the business and administrative functions are just as important - they underpin all our operational activities.

What's the Most Interesting Thing You've Learnt Over Your Career?

The power of engagement, and by that I mean how important it is to talk to people and really listen to them. 

There’s no such thing as one size fits all.

What Would You Say to Someone Wanting to Build a Career in this Sector Now?

They need to understand what the demands will be on their time, and they need to have the time to commit to the job. If they don’t grasp that, they really won’t last, they won’t make it through the training.  

You need to want to give back to the community, but then there’s endless opportunities to build on your skill-sets, knowledge and experience around the water.  

Some volunteers stay with us and become full time members of staff, and some use it as a stepping stone into the wider maritime industry, going on to work with super-yachts, for example.

What Do You Think Will be the Biggest Issue Impacting the Sector in the Future?

As previously mentioned the two big issues for us, is funding, securing enough to deliver the services needed, and the second issue is sustaining our volunteers who have the time. 

Increasingly boating activity is 24/7, 7 days a week, 365 days a year - are we going to have enough volunteers to cover that going forward as the demand for services grows?

Volunteers inevitably join the Coastguard; keen to jump on a boat and help save people, they rarely join to man a stall and sell raffle tickets – but we need both! 

Increasingly, we need to employ staff to fill the administrative roles to cover these essential – but perhaps less inspiring - tasks.

As the (Relatively) Newly Elected Chairman for the IMRF, What Would You Like to Achieve During Your Time in Office? 

Firstly, I would like to ensure that the IMRF has the financial security and stability that it needs to confidently and effectively help lead and represent Maritime SAR Community globally.

Secondly, I would like the IMRF to continue to develop its work providing SAR resources, training and expertise, enabling more countries and regions around the world to develop an effective SAR network and building their capabilities.