IMRF MRO project manager David Jardine-Smith writes:
The turn of the year saw a number of major maritime SAR operations hit the headlines, including the loss of AirAsia flight QZ8501 in the Java Sea, and the mass rescue operation, largely by air, after the ferry Norman Atlantic caught fire in the Adriatic.
The latter incident (pictured by the Italian Navy on the left) was another reminder that successful rescue in such cases partly depends on successful escape and evacuation too. In the Sewol case last year the escape process failed: people were told not to go to points from which they could leave the ship. In Norman Atlantic's case it seems clear that the evacuation system failed because of the rapid spread of the fire, leaving many people stranded on the ferry's upper decks, waiting for helicopters.
Congratulations are due to the rescuers, working in very difficult conditions – but we must also remember that many people died, and that we are unlikely to ever know precisely how many, because of the suspected presence of stowaways, striving to reach Italy.
As is still too often the case, other people have been drowning in large numbers, but without so much news media attention.
On 15 January AFP reported that scores of people were feared dead after the boat they were travelling in caught fire and sank on the Oubangui River in the Central African Republic. This was just the latest in a series of tragedies on the continent.
Dig into the news reports a little and the headlines leap out at you: "Mali boat accident casualties rise...", "13 dead in Lagos boat accident...", "251 refugees die in accident on Lake Albert", "Dozens feared dead in Libyan boat accident...", "20 people drown in Zambia..."
These were all in the past year. On 12 December "an overcrowded ferry capsized in the Democratic Republic of Congo... At least 129 bodies have been pulled from Lake Tanganyika since the sinking occurred..." Inadequate SAR provision is only part of the story in these desperate cases – although let's remember that a mass rescue operation is, by definition, beyond the normal capability of any SAR organisation.
Overloading and lack of lifesaving equipment are common themes. But surely we can help improve this terrible situation?
IMRF Trustee Hamish McDonald, who has long taken a close interest in lifesaving in the region, says "The figures certainly highlight the challenges associated with the waterways of the African continent, but equally demonstrate where IMRF could provide beneficial input if given the chance."
Well, raising awareness of the issues has been a central part of the IMRF's mass rescue operations (MRO) project over the past few years. There are rescue lessons to be learned from high-profile incidents like Costa Concordia, Sewol and Norman Atlantic, and search lessons from the Malaysian Airlines and AirAsia cases – and safety and SAR lessons to be learned from the under-reported accidents in Africa and elsewhere too. Remember the Pinak 6? Remember the Rabaul Queen...?
Our project is all about learning these lessons and passing them on, so that SAR colleagues around the world will be better prepared to respond, and save more lives. Our successful Gothenburg series of conferences has been part of this process, and the IMRF team are now considering organising similar events elsewhere in the world.
Our MRO Workshop package has also proved its worth, and we would be happy to discuss arranging one for you if you would like – email us at info@IMRF.org.uk.
Finally our online MRO reference library will be launched at the World Maritime Rescue Congress in June. This will be a userfriendly collection of guidance and examples, intended to help anyone involved in maritime SAR, from the national SAR Coordinator to the SMC to the rescue unit commander, to get ready for these rare but very difficult events.
I am delighted to say that John Geel of the KNRM will be helping us to complete the online library, and that a grant from Trinity House will greatly assist us in this work. Please see the project pages for more information.