SAR Matters: Ten Mass Rescue Operational Realities - Part 1

Posted in MRO News

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In this edition we hear from Rob Lee & Rick Janelle, Passenger Vessel Safety Specialists with the United States Coast Guard. This is the first part of a two-part article on

Ten Mass Rescue Operational Realities

In this edition we cover the first four on Rob & Rick's list. The others will be in our June edition.
October 4, 2010 marked the 30th anniversary of the dramatic rescue by the United States Coast Guard (USCG) of 520 passengers and crew from the burning mv Prinsendam in the hostile Gulf of Alaska.

This 'mass rescue operation' (MRO) was so impressive it is second on the list of top ten rescues in Coast Guard history as rated by the organization's historians. Only Hurricane Katrina operations in 2005 rate higher.

In 2007, mv Explorer struck ice and sank in Antarctica. In 2009, US Airways' "Miracle on the Hudson" incident resulted in the rescue of all on board.

In 2010, mv Clipper Adven-turer grounded in the high Arctic. It took two days for the nearest rescue vessel to arrive on scene. In 2012, the Costa Concordia incident resulted in 32 deaths and the evacuation of thousands.

What was unthinkable or unimaginable in 1980 is today's reality.

The 520 people rescued from the Prinsendam would all fit in just two or three lifeboats from today's super cruise ships. Cruise ship routes now span the globe, and continue to expand into new markets.

Adventure cruises routinely sail to the Arctic, Antarctic, and other remote corners of the seas. Ferries, day tour operations, dinner cruises, and offshore gaming vessels have also grown in number, size, and geographic area of operation.

As a result, the next MRO may be 15 times larger than the Prinsendam and occur in an even more isolated region.

Our capacity for mass rescue response has not kept pace with the potential. MRO planning is more critical than ever, but often remains undervalued by SAR organizations that are by nature 'responders' and not planners.

So; if you are concerned about your organization's ability to meet the increased MRO challenges, you should continue to read...

This list of operational realities is condensed from actual responses and exercises that highlight the need for MRO- specific planning and introduce recommendations and job aids to improve local MRO preparedness. Although numbered for presentation, the list is not ordered for priority – item 10 is as important as item 1.

Each MRO response will be unique depending on the type of craft involved, number and condition of victims, location, weather, response assets available, capabilities of the crew and operators, and several other contributing factors.

But MROs also share common operational realities that must be considered in preparing for and responding to such incidents. Although only briefly described here, each item is worthy of a lengthy discussion, and certainly requires careful consideration in any MRO planning document and incident response.

Reality #1: MRO incidents are not confined to a single organization, or to strictly SAR functions.
No single agency will possess all the tools or assets required for success in an MRO.

Coordination with multiple local, state, regional, or international response partners will be required, not only for the challenging on-water SAR operation, but also for the several concurrent functions including security, pollution response, salvage, investigative actions, medical response, shore side shelter and support, transportation, and final account-ability of survivors and casualties.

If you make a list of agencies involved it will include, at a minimum, the lead SAR agency, ship personnel, ship owners, "Good Samaritan" vessels, port community officials, agents, government agencies, customs, local fire and police, local and national public health officials, hospitals, media, transportation companies, various volunteer organizations, and others.

The list is extensive and each organization is dependent on the actions of or information received from a partner to be successful. To make it all work, a functional MRO plan is required.

In the United States, the Incident Command System (ICS) is the management process best suited to effectively manage the various MRO operational functions.

Fitting the traditional SAR organization and procedures into the ICS umbrella takes a willingness to recognize and accept the need for change, and a commitment to invest in the planning, training and practice to make it work.

With MROs being low occurrence events, it is often difficult to make this commitment, especially since we have been successful in MROs in the past.

However, it will pay off if the "unthinkable" occurs. [The ICS concept is described in IMO's International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue (IAMSAR) Manual, Volume II, Appendix C-4.]

To avoid duplication of effort or conflicts, MRO plans must dovetail with the emergency plans of each significant response partner.

One tool to help with plan compatibility is a simple joint quick-start guide listing the response expectations and key actions of major response partners. As an example, a USCG 'Multi-Agency Quick Start Guide for Passenger Vessel Emergencies' can be found at

Another practical option to help achieve plan coordination is to work with your partners to develop an incident briefing document which provides much of the guidance in the quick start guide, but would also include your organization chart and identify key facility locations including command post, landing site(s), and reception center(s).

No matter how you do it, get to know your partners, understand the role they play, and the tools and information required for their success.

The next two operational realities are closely related and will be discussed jointly.

Reality #2: Accountability of passengers and crew will be elusive and difficult. An accountability process must be developed, implemented and stressed from the start, and then checked and double-checked at each opportunity.

Reality #3: There will be delays, often lengthy, between rescuing and officially accounting for people. Pressure to "hurry" the process will often lower the accuracy.

There is no standard procedure for managing the accountability process. If you're lucky, there will be an official manifest that provides a starting point to check off the names of rescued survivors, but even the accuracy of the manifest must be double-checked.

Manifests may not include non-revenue, short-term technicians, marine pilots, or other individuals.

To make matters worse, on many commuter ferry operations there is no manifest – only a head count taken as passengers walk on board. If this is the situation, it is important to include crew in the final head count number. Airline manifests are tightly controlled after an incident, and rescuers will often be provided with just the number of individuals on board.

Accountability will take time. Time to recover the evacuees to a stable platform, time to count the numbers onboard, time to double-check the numbers, time to transport to shore, time to work the manifest (if available) and transition from head count to names, and time to run down the errors that should be expected. Accountability should proceed at best speed.

Rushing the process will only compound the errors, increase frustration, and in the end slow the process down.

How to execute the accountability process during a MRO incident is a universal problem. The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) is refining an initiative titled 'Casualty Tracking System for Multiple Casualty Incidents' (CASTRACK).

This system is designed to track and account for all casualties involved in a major marine incident. While this project is focused on a CCG application pertaining to large passenger vessels, the intent is for the system to be adaptable and useful to other response agencies.

Accountability must be addressed in your MRO planning. Your plan should determine which organization will ultimately manage the process, and how and where accountability information will be collected, shared, collated and checked. A 6-Step Process for Evacuee Accountability, Care, and Processing Guide is available at

Importantly, make sure to include responder accountability in your process.

As a practical matter, buses (tour, city, school, etc) are excellent tools for accountability. Survivors can be loaded on to buses, given basic food and drink, be warmed and provided with basic first aid.

Buses also contain survivors until they can be accounted for – no one gets off the bus until they have signed in and required information is recorded and verified. Provide guides for each bus.

Guides can be ship hotel staff, or local volunteers who are familiar with handling and directing large groups of people and who understand the accountability process.

Due to the value of buses, it is strongly recommended that bus companies be involved in the development of local MRO plans, and be included in training and exercises.

Reality #4: The demand for information will be overwhelming unless a process is implemented early to manage the content and flow of internal and external communications.

How you communicate, what you communicate, when you communicate, and who you communicate and share information with will be critical; perhaps the single most important factor.

This is a huge topic, one that requires deliberate planning with your response partners. Planning involves hardware compatibility, frequency use, content and format agreement, release authority, information security, social media concerns, public information policy and other factors that impact communications.

Maintaining a common operations picture between response partners requires a well-planned and practiced system. Any level of success will depend on your communications capabilities.

When considering communications internal to the response organization, keep in mind that this includes not just rescue units, but also all the other response agencies involved. Early in a response, the SAR authority is often the 'gatekeeper' of information.

The On Scene Coordin-ator (OSC) must immediately report critical information to the SAR Mission Coordinator (SMC).

The SMC must not hoard this information but actively push it out to response partners, who may be remotely located. Information that must be pushed includes numbers of victims, their condition, port arrival times, rescue vessel names and docking requirements, safety concerns, and anything else that is required for mission completion by the various agencies.

As the incident matures, other response partners will also begin to push the information they collect. Recommended landing sites, survivor tracking and accountability, status reports, and security concerns are examples of information the maritime SAR services need but will not necessarily collect.

Dispatching liaison officers to help collect and share critical information should also be considered a best practice.

There are also external communications with contacts outside the response organization. For MRO events these will largely be with family and friends of victims, and the news media. Both will be demanding. Neither can be ignored.

(To be concluded in our June edition: look out for it!)


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International Maritime Rescue Federation
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