4.3 The SAR Mission Coordinator

Written by David Jardine-Smith. Posted in C4 - Command, Control, Coordination & Communications (

Date Written
Tuesday, 07 June 2016
International Maritime Rescue Federation
Type of Paper
  • Guidance Paper
  • English

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This paper discusses:

o   the general role of the SAR Mission Coordinator (SMC)
o   the SMC's place in a mass rescue operation (MRO) structure
o   the need for the SMC to be able to focus on coordinating the maritime SAR elements of the operation
o   the similarities and differences in coordinating a mass rescue as opposed to an 'ordinary' SAR operation
o   filling the 'coordination capability gap'
o   a coordinating network
o   the need to plan for and resource various possibilities: search, rescue and/or support
o   the need to account for all involved
o   the coordination of 'remote area operations'

1 Overview

1 Overview

1.1 For a general introduction to the IMRF's mass rescue operations (MRO) guidance, please see MRO guidance paper 1.1 'Complex incident planning – the challenge: acknowledging the problem, and mass rescue incident types'.

1.2 The guidance in this section focuses on various aspects of the coordination question. The concept of coordination itself, and the various coordinators who may be involved, are discussed in guidance paper 4.1. Three of the four main coordinating roles identified in the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue (IAMSAR) Manual – the SAR Coordinator, the On Scene Coordinator and the Aircraft Coordinator – are discussed in guidance papers 4.2 4.4 & 4.5 . Some of the uses to which surface units and aircraft may be put in a mass rescue operation are discussed in guidance papers 4.6 & 4.7 respectively. Guidance paper 4.8 considers the important matter of coordinating the maritime and the shoreside response. And the communications systems and procedures essential to the success of all these aspects of an MRO are discussed in guidance paper 4.9 .

1.3 The fourth coordinating role identified in the IAMSAR Manual – the SAR Mission Coordinator (SMC) – is discussed in this paper.

2 The General Role of the SAR Mission Coordinator

2 The General Role of the SAR Mission Coordinator

2.1 As discussed in guidance paper 4.2 , it is important to distinguish between the 'SAR Coordinator' – the person or agency with 'overall responsibility for establishing and providing SAR services and ensuring that planning for those services is properly coordinated' – and the SAR Mission Coordinator. The SMC is defined in IAMSAR as:

"the official temporarily assigned to coordinate response to an actual or apparent distress situation."

2.2 The SMC organises the SAR response to an accident. It follows from the IMO's definition that the task lasts only as long as the SAR incident does, and that it can be delegated to anyone who is suitably trained and equipped – especially as regards communications and SAR planning capabilities. This person should be associated with a Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC):

"a unit responsible for promoting efficient organization of search and rescue services and for co-ordinating the conduct of search and rescue operations within a search and rescue region."

2.3 An RCC may be designated as a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC); an Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC); or – as recommended by the IMO – a Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC), combining both aeronautical and maritime response functions. The IAMSAR Manual also designates Rescue Sub Centres (RSC), but these subordinate units are unlikely to be resourced sufficiently to conduct a mass rescue operation. In this guidance, we use the term 'RCC' generically, to mean the centre coordinating the MRO.

2.4 In most 'routine' SAR cases (as opposed to MROs) an officer on watch at the RCC will be assigned the role of SMC. S/he may be the senior person in the RCC at the time, or the role may be delegated by that senior officer to other members of the RCC team. This will depend on various factors, including the number of SAR cases running concurrently. There should therefore be sufficient RCC personnel trained to act as SMCs to enable the successful prosecution of all 'ordinary' SAR cases, 24/7.

2.5 Volume II of the IAMSAR Manual, the 'Mission Co-ordination' volume, is the principal source of international guidance on the SMC role. Volume III, 'Mobile Facilities', also contains useful information. Volume II chapter 1.2.3 summarises the SMC's tasks in general. This text is annexed to this guidance paper.

3 The SAR Mission Coordinator's Place in a Mass Rescue Operation

3 The SAR Mission Coordinator's Place in a Mass Rescue Operation

3.1 The IAMSAR Volume II text at annex outlines the SMC's tasks in what we are calling 'ordinary' operations: SAR responses within the capability of the local SAR services. But MROs are 'extraordinary'.

3.2 In this respect, IAMSAR Volume II says:

Chapter 6.15.28.

“To the extent practicable, MROs should be coordinated by an SMC in an RCC. However, depending on the magnitude, nature and complexity of an incident, the rescue efforts may be better coordinated by an appropriate operations centre higher within the SAR agency or another Government agency. Considerations in this decision might include, among others:

-   extensive rescue support by organizations other than those commonly used for SAR;
-   need for heavy international diplomatic support; and
-   serious problems in addition to potential loss of lives, such as environmental threats, terrorist actions, or national security issues."

­3.3 These issues are discussed in general in guidance paper 4.1 . Coordination of a complex incident such as an MRO will require additional resources, and will (or at least should) be separated into a number of interlinked but specific functions.


This diagram is simplified, at least as far as the organisation of the shoreside response is concerned, but it shows in general how the coordination workload involved in an MRO should be sub-divided.

3.4 It is not necessary that the SAR mission coordination process should be transferred to a ‘higher operations centre’ – indeed, this would have a damaging effect if that centre is not equipped and staffed for the purpose. It is the overall incident response coordination that may be better handled at a higher level and/or a different location. In order to clarify the IAMSAR guidance quoted above the following additional text has been added in the 2016 edition of the Manual:

“If [coordination by a higher operations centre] is intended, it is essential that it is pre-planned, with full involvement of all parties, including the RCC staff, to avoid confusion at the time of an incident. The plan may, for example, provide for the RCC to maintain coordination of the SAR response while the higher operations centre handles the wider issues.”

3.5 The diagram above includes a number of coordination points ashore. The SMC is based at an RCC, the crucial coordination point linking the maritime and shoreside parts of the operation (see guidance paper 4.8 ). People being brought to safety may be landed at several different points, each of which will require local coordination. So will the reception centre(s) the survivors are then moved to, and the other support functions – medical, welfare, transport etc – that the operation requires. As discussed in guidance paper 4.1 , all these elements of the response should be coordinated by a tactical group, whose work is distinct from the work of the RCC, although necessarily closely linked with it.

3.6 The tactical coordination group ashore should include staff from each of the responding organisations, ideally including liaison officers from the RCC, harbours receiving people being brought ashore and any industry organisation involved – a representative of the shipping company, for example, if the casualty is a passenger ship. This tactical group needs information from the RCC, and will have information to pass back to it, but it focuses on organising the 'place of safety' part of the rescue, in all its aspects.

3.7 Again as discussed in guidance paper 4.1, there should also be a strategic group, overseeing the whole operation and providing support and resources as and where required. It is usually the case that this strategic group works most closely with the shoreside tactical group, as shown in the diagram above. However, the coordinating RCC will also require strategic support, usually from its own parent organisation, whose senior officers understand its specialist needs and can implement the organisation's own complex incident planning.

3.8 It follows from this discussion that the SMC, working at the RCC, is a part of a wider coordination structure in an MRO. S/he should not be expected to coordinate the whole response, as the IAMSAR Manual says. Instead, the SMC should focus – and be enabled to focus – on what s/he knows best: the coordination of the maritime SAR mission, and only that mission.

4 The SAR Mission Coordinator's Role in a Mass Rescue Operation

4 The SAR Mission Coordinator's Role in a Mass Rescue Operation

4.1 If we refer again to the IAMSAR Manual's summary of the SMC's role, annexed, we see that it summarises the SMC's role as gathering information, developing accurate and workable search and rescue action plans, and dispatching and coordinating the resources which will carry out those plans. The fundamental point here is that the SMC's role in an MRO is no different. It will be more intense, and it will require the SMC – or, better, members of his or her team – to communicate with people and organisations they do not usually communicate with. But the role itself is essentially the same as in any other SAR response. The list of actions in the annex is as valid for an SMC working on an MRO as it is for any other case.

4.2 It is important to note the need to keep the SMC focussed on coordinating the maritime SAR response along the same lines as in an 'ordinary' case, and to plan and train with this in mind. The seniority of the SMC is unimportant: it is his or her competence that matters. S/he needs to know the MRO plan and be able to implement it, but should not be expected to take on additional work beyond the SMC function. Conversely, no-one should be appointed as SMC for an MRO who does not usually do SMC work. It is a matter of using the right expert and using them only in their own area of expertise.

4.3 There are inevitable differences of scale in an MRO response. The SMC tasks are the same as in 'ordinary' operations, but are intensified by the situation. They will include:

o   acknowledging that a mass rescue operation is required;
o   initiating alerting procedures and establishing the MRO communications network required (see guidance paper 4.9 );
o   gathering information and ensuring that it is distributed as necessary;
o   initial tasking of SAR facilities, including the additional facilities required for an MRO (see guidance papers 3.1, 3.2 & 3.3 );
o   appointing an On Scene Coordinator (OSC: see guidance paper 4.4 , and below);
o   appointing an Aircraft Coordinator (ACO) and other specialist coordinators as necessary (see guidance papers 4.5 & 4.1 , and below);
o   developing search, rescue and/or support action plans (see below), in conjunction with the OSC and other responders, and ensuring that the plans are communicated to all the responding SAR facilities as necessary; and
o   coordinating the responding SAR facilities' actions, through the OSC and other coordination links as necessary, ensuring that the search, rescue and/or support action plans are implemented, amended as required by circumstances.

4.4 It is vital that the SMC for a mass rescue operation should be fully prepared for the task. This means specific training, including a full understanding of the MRO plan, for all personnel who may be required to take the role on.

5 Filling the Coordination Capability Gap

5 Filling the Coordination Capability Gap

5.1 As discussed in guidance paper 1.4 , a mass rescue operation is, by definition, one in which "the capabilities normally available to the search and rescue authorities are inadequate". Finding the resources necessary to fill this 'capability gap' is discussed in guidance papers 3.1 3.2 & 3.3 , and the SMC should be fully aware of how this issue is to be resolved according to the MRO plans for his/her own SAR Region. But the capability gap may apply to key coordinating personnel such as the SMC and to Rescue Coordination Centres themselves as well as to the other resources normally available for SAR. Part of the MRO planning must be to ensure that both SMC and RCC are 'MRO-capable' too.

5.2 This means that RCCs should be organised so as to enable an MRO to be coordinated effectively wherever and whenever it occurs. This may mean additional equipment – particularly communications equipment – and will always mean additional personnel. As noted in IAMSAR (see annex), 'the SMC should in all cases be supported by RCC watch team members to undertake functions in the coordinating process such as communications, plotting, logging and search planning' – and this includes MROs. Liaison officers will also be needed, as discussed in guidance paper 4.1 , in addition to tactical and strategic support. It may be possible to divert personnel from other tasks to provide these extra resources, or on-call systems may be necessary.

5.3 It is not necessarily the case that every RCC in a region should be so equipped and staffed or supported that it can coordinate an MRO. Always provided that the coordinating RCC can communicate with everyone it needs to and that it has the necessary local information available, it can be remote from the area of SAR action. Selecting particular RCCs to lead on MROs or other complex incidents is, of course, a matter for planning and agreement by all SAR authorities in the region.

5.4 Similarly, personnel who may be required to take on the SMC role in such an incident must be prepared for it. They should be carefully selected and will require specific training. They need to have a full understanding of the MRO plan, and 'ownership' of it (see guidance paper 1.2).

5.5 Other RCC staff, acting in support of the SMC, and including those brought in to assist with the additional workload of an MRO, should also have sufficient knowledge and ownership of the plan. If the RCC staff do not understand or support the plan, no-one will!

5.6 The IAMSAR guidance at annex also notes that, "for complex cases or those of long duration, the assisting team as well as the SMC must be replaced at regular intervals". An MRO is a high-stress and fatiguing affair for everyone concerned, including the SMC and the rest of the RCC staff. Regular reliefs are of great importance. RCC managers should ensure that they occur, and should, at the planning stage, consider whether watches should be shortened and reliefs staggered for the duration of the MRO, to keep people fresh and to ensure continuity of knowledge of the operation among the on-watch staff.

5.7 The same principles of regular relief and rest should apply to all staff deployed as part of the MRO response – including senior officers. Nobody is so important that they are not affected by fatigue!

7 Search, Rescue or Support?

7 Search, Rescue or Support?

7.1 As discussed in guidance papers 1.1 & 2.1, an MRO can take several forms. There will usually be some sort of search for the SMC to plan for; but the 'rescue' may take the form of providing support on-scene rather than – or as well as – 'traditional' retrieval. Initial aid, such as medical aid, will be a factor, and places of safety have to be selected and prepared.

7.2 While it can be argued that there will always be a search element for the SMC to consider (see guidance paper 2.5 , and below), that search may be more or less complex depending on the circumstances. A widespread search for many small targets (a fleet of fishing vessels, for example) may be the major focus of the earlier stages of an MRO; or the search element may be precautionary, for example in an incident in which evacuation is either not happening or is proceeding in an orderly way. In the latter case the main focus will be elsewhere – but the SMC must still not neglect the search requirement.

7.3 The 'rescue' or 'support' question also arises. In some circumstances – a passenger ship evacuating at sea, for example – the need for traditional rescue is clear. People have to be retrieved from survival craft, or perhaps from the water too in an uncontrolled abandonment, and brought to places of safety, being cared for in transit. In cases which occur near to harbours, survival craft may be able to make their own way in, so the 'rescue' takes the form of escort and support; or it may be a mix of retrieval and escort, as in the Costa Concordia case.

7.4 On the other hand, the ship's master may be able to avoid the risks of evacuation if given sufficient on-board support. In such a case the SMC's task is a different one: the necessary support facilities need to be arranged and deployed. Or then again, it may a question of providing on-board support to facilitate evacuation.

7.5 In any case it is the SMC's task to plan the SAR response. The wise SMC will plan for all eventualities, and will keep the planning flexible to allow for changes over time. If on-board support is requested, s/he will coordinate its provision, of course, but s/he will also be planning for evacuation or abandonment if the situation deteriorates. In the latter case both rescue and search plans will be required. See also guidance papers 2.4, 2.6, 2.7 & 3.3 .

8 Accounting for People

8 Accounting for People

8.1 Put simply, the SMC's task is to ensure that as many people as possible are rescued in an MRO, and that all are accounted for. Rescue and/or on-scene support are a matter of identifying and coordinating the response of sufficient numbers of the right facilities for the job. Making as sure as possible that everyone at risk has been accounted for is a matter of searching – actively, knowing that people are missing, or as a precaution – and keeping very careful counts of the people involved.

8.2 Both the search element and the counting are discussed in guidance paper 2.5 . As we say there, at least in the early stages of the response there will be confusion over numbers, and the SMC's best option is to ensure that precautionary searches are done aboard the casualty, so far as possible, and in the surrounding area. There is little to be gained by attempting detailed counts while retrieval operations are still ongoing.

8.3 The counting comes a little later, as people are being brought to places of safety and after they have arrived there. The SMC should ensure that, as rescue facilities leave the scene, a careful count is made of those each unit has aboard and the results reported to the RCC, usually via the OSC, although direct contact may be preferable, particularly if the OSC is still heavily engaged on-scene. The SMC's chief interest in the numbers is as regards search action, which s/he should continue until everyone is accounted for.

8.4 Other organisations will also have a keen interest in the count, for the same and other reasons, and may be able to help with it once people are ashore. If the casualty was a passenger ship or aircraft or an offshore installation, the relevant company will have a leading part to play, providing information about the people believed to have been aboard as well as assisting with the accounting. Medical, police and border control authorities, among others, will also need this information.

8.5 If on-board support is being provided it is also the SMC's responsibility to ensure that the number of response personnel who have been placed aboard the casualty is recorded. These people too are at risk, and need to be properly accounted for.

8.6 A system should be established at the RCC to record numbers reported involved in the incident; those in the process of being rescued; and those brought to a place of safety, together with current locations and other vital information such as medical needs.

8.7 Finally, it should be emphasised again that counting people in these circumstances is more difficult than it might appear. The SMC should ensure that numbers are rigorously checked, and should continue search action until the numbers are confirmed or until there is no longer any likelihood of missing people still being alive.

9 Remove Area Operations

9 Remote Area Operations

9.1 The IMO has agreed that there are ‘areas remote from SAR facilities’: areas where sufficient designated SAR units cannot reach the scene of an accident within survival times. In guidance paper 2.8 we noted that there are many parts of the world’s seas and oceans where this may be the case.

9.2 There are also SAR Regions without functioning RCCs to coordinate SAR action within them, or the local RCC may have lost functionality – in a catastrophic incident, for example. It is also possible that, while there may be an RCC functioning in the Region, it is not capable of coordinating a mass rescue operation. MROs in such areas will be particularly challenging.

9.3 The IAMSAR Manual says that, if a ship’s master or the commander of another unit becomes aware of a distress situation directly and communications “cannot be established with an RCC”, s/he should assume the responsibilities of On Scene Coordinator and “may have to assume SMC duties and actually plan the search and/or rescue”.

Volume II Chapter 1.2.4.

This is further discussed in guidance paper 4.4, where we note that, with long-range communications – satellite communications in particular – it will normally be possible for an OSC to contact an RCC somewhere for advice and assistance.

9.4 The staff at an RCC so contacted will have a particularly difficult task to undertake. As well as assisting the OSC to develop search and rescue plans – and perhaps support plans, if suitable facilities are available on scene or can be contacted nearby – the RCC should do all it can to establish contacts in the State(s) nearest the incident, possibly to arrange additional support on scene, but certainly to agree places of safety, with the necessary shoreside support infrastructure, to which rescue units can be directed (see guidance paper 4.8 ).

9.5 The RCC may need considerable support from its own strategic managers in this case, for assistance may be needed through diplomatic and other international channels. But action should be taken by whichever RCC is contacted, at least until coordination can be handed over to a more appropriate RCC.

10 Summary

10 Summary

o   The SAR Mission Coordinator – 'the official temporarily assigned to coordinate response to an actual or apparent distress situation' – has essentially the same role in a mass rescue operation as in any other SAR case.
o   There will be a wider response structure, with other coordination nodes, of which the coordinating Rescue Coordination Centre is only one. The SMC must focus – and must be enabled to focus – on his/her specific part of the operation: coordinating the maritime SAR work.
o   There are inevitable differences of scale in an MRO response. It is vital that the SMC should be fully prepared for the task, including specific training, and a full understanding of the MRO plan.
o   MRO planning should include planning to fill 'capability gaps' in coordination, as in other aspects of the response. Sufficient SMCs and RCCs should be 'MRO-capable'.
o   It is not necessary that every RCC in a region should be able to coordinate an MRO, so long as there are enough 'MRO-capable' RCCs to provide full coverage.
o   Fatigue is a danger to all involved in an MRO, and must be addressed by all concerned. Regular, staggered reliefs should be arranged for RCC personnel, including SMCs. Managers should consider shortening watches during MROs, due to the intensity of the work.
o   The SMC should appoint, and work closely with, an On Scene Coordinator in a mass rescue operation. Other subsidiary coordinators, including an Aircraft Coordinator, should be appointed as circumstances require.
o   The SMC should plan for all eventualities – search, rescue and support – and should keep the planning flexible to allow for changes over time.
o   The SMC's task in an MRO is to ensure that as many people as possible are rescued, and that all are accounted for. The SMC should ensure that reported numbers are recorded and rigorously checked, and should continue search action until all involved are confirmed as having been accounted for or until there is no longer any likelihood of missing people still being alive.
o   An RCC may be contacted by units responding to an MRO in another SAR Region if they cannot establish communications with an RCC in that Region. An RCC so contacted should assist as best it can. 

11 Further Reading

11 Further Reading

11.1 For further reading on command, control, coordination and communications in mass rescue operations, follow this link.

11.2 Volume II of the IAMSAR Manual is the principle source of guidance on the SMC role. Volume III also contains useful information. Volume II chapter 1.2.3, annexed to this guidance paper, summarises the SMC's tasks; and chapter 6.15 refers to the SMC in the context of mass rescue operations.



IAMSAR Manual Volume II, Chapter 1.2.3

SAR operations are normally carried out under the direction and supervision of an SMC, who is usually the supervisor of the RCC or RSC watch team. In multiple-incident situations this officer could be SMC for all incidents, or, for some of those incidents, the SMC role could be delegated to another suitably qualified member of the watch team. The SMC should in all cases be supported by RCC watch team members to undertake functions in the coordinating process such as communications, plotting, logging and search planning. For complex cases or those of long duration, the assisting team as well as the SMC must be replaced at regular intervals. The SMC must be able to competently gather information about emergencies, transform emergency incident information into accurate and workable plans and dispatch and coordinate the facilities which will carry out the SAR missions.

The SMC is in charge of a SAR operation until a rescue has been effected or until it has become apparent that further efforts would be of no avail, or until responsibility is accepted by another RCC. The SMC should be able to use readily available facilities and to request additional ones during the operation. The SMC plans the search and rescue operations and coordinates the transit of SAR facilities to and from the scene.

The SMC should be well trained in all SAR processes and be thoroughly familiar with the applicable SAR plans. The SMC must competently gather information about distress situations, develop accurate and workable action plans, and dispatch and coordinate the resources which will carry out SAR missions. The plans of operation maintained by the RCC provide information to assist in these efforts. Guidelines for SMC duties include:

-   obtain and evaluate all data on the emergency;
-   ascertain the type of emergency equipment carried by the missing or distressed craft;
-   remain informed of prevailing environmental conditions;
-   if necessary, ascertain movements and location of vessels and alert shipping in likely search areas for rescue, lookout (visual and electronic) and/or radio watch on appropriate frequencies to facilitate communications with SAR facilities;
-   plot the area to be searched and decide on the methods and facilities to be used;
-   develop the search action plan (and rescue action plan as appropriate); that is, allocate search areas, designate the On Scene Coordinator, dispatch SAR facilities and designate on-scene communications frequencies;
-   inform the RCC chief of the search action plan;
-   coordinate the operation with adjacent RCCs when appropriate;
-   arrange briefing and debriefing of SAR personnel;
-   evaluate all reports from any source and modify the search action plan as necessary;
-   arrange for the fuelling of aircraft and, if necessary, rescue vessels and, for prolonged search, make arrangements for the accommodation of SAR personnel;
-   arrange for delivery of supplies to sustain survivors;
-   maintain in chronological order an accurate and up-to-date record with a plot, where necessary, of all proceedings;
-   issue progress reports;
-   recommend to the RCC chief the abandoning or suspending of the search;
-   release SAR facilities when assistance is no longer required;
-   notify accident investigation authorities;
-   notify police and other government authorities where relevant and necessary;
-   if applicable, notify the State of registry of the aircraft or vessel in accordance with established arrangements; and
-   prepare a final report on the results of the [SAR] operation.
    As discussed in this guidance paper, in complex incidents such as mass rescue operations the SMC should be coordinating only the maritime SAR aspects of the operation, and will therefore be reporting on these aspects only.

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