SAR Matters: Ten Mass Rescue Operational Realities Part 2

Posted in MRO News

This column provides a forum for LIFE LINE readers worldwide to contribute to debate on any relevant SAR issue. Have a look at the previous discussions in our Newsletter Archive.

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In this edition we conclude the article by Rob Lee & Rick Janelle, United States Coast Guard Passenger Vessel Safety Specialists, which we began in our April issue. Or read the Online Part one. You can download the first part of the article from the IMRF website. Rob and Rick have identified:


Ten Mass Rescue Operational Realities

In April they covered the first four realities on their list: the challenging and complex nature of mass rescue operations (MROs) and the need for multi-agency planning; the need for a rigorous process for accounting for everyone involved, and to accept that this will take time; and the vital need for early implementation of an effective communications plan.

Rob and Rick noted that there will be major demands for information, both from within the overall response organisation and from outside it. They conclude that:

Once again, pre-planning is critical if the response organization is to be able to provide the first information and remain its best source.

Your response plans must outline a process for establishment of a call center for relatives and friends, as well as a media strategy that includes a joint media center and unified command press releases and media briefs.

Each response partner may already have a media specialist. Joint planning and training opportunities for these specialists is highly recommended.

Invest time and effort in your communications planning. It will pay huge dividends.

Reality #5: Dedicated SAR resources will be limited and "Good Samaritan" vessels will be critical for success in the majority of incidents.

In most regions, Government SAR assets are spread too thin to ensure they are always the first to arrive on scene, and the assistance of private "Good Samaritan" vessels will be necessary.

To be of maximum value, the crews should understand the SAR organization, critical communication requirements, the duties and responsibilities of the first vessel on scene, and be trained to evaluate and mitigate associated risks in order to conduct a safe rescue operation.

Unfortunately, most "Good Sams" will have no formal training in SAR operations and will need a higher level of support and direction from the On Scene Coordinator (OSC) or SAR Mission Coordinator (SMC).

SAR organizations are encouraged to provide basic SAR training to educate potential Good Samaritan vessels in their region.

Training should review the functions of an OSC, communications requirements, safety and other concerns.

Encourage the development of a basic rescue assistance plan or policies, and investigate opportunities to include local Good Samaritans in training events.

Guidance for Good Samaritan Vessels Assisting in Maritime Search and Rescue provides basic information and is available at

Expect Good Samaritan vessels to have difficulties recovering survivors onto the deck. They are not designed for victim recovery.

For many commercial ships this is especially troublesome. Throw in survivor age, fatigue or injury factors and the problem increases. This is a case by case situation.

Begin to investigate solutions as soon as the characteristics and recovery limitations of the rescue vessels are known. During the Prinsendam response [referred to in the first part of this article, in our April edition], helicopters were used to lift survivors from lifeboats to the deck of a Good Samaritan tank ship.

Reality #6: SAR Mission Coordinators and On Scene Coordinators receive minimal training in the extreme demands of managing MRO activities.

For most responses professional SMCs and OSCs are comfortable taking control of the situation and directing people and assets.

But are they prepared for the confusion, dozens of rescue boats, extreme communi-cation demands, and thousands of survivors, many injured, that may result from an MRO?

Are they prepared to initiate passenger accountability and track all on-scene rescue assets? In responding to the "unimaginable", it is easy to become 'lost', especially if no prior experience or training has provided a foundation for action.

Take the opportunity to provide MRO-specific guidance, training and exercises to SMCs and OSCs. Provide guidance for accountability, asset tracking, critical information reporting, and communications best practices.

Ensure they understand how the SAR organization will fit into the unified command that will be employed.

Discuss coordination with shore side agencies and the importance of sharing information quickly. Review MRO safety concerns.

One particular concern is awareness of the maximum number of recovered survivors that can be loaded onto rescue boats while maintaining their stability.

Both the SMC and OSC will need extra help.

The demands of the response will quickly overwhelm their normal capacities.

A trained and practiced management team using ICS principles will be required to maintain a common operational picture with all response partners, to track response resources, coordinate accountability, manage external affairs, ensure proper documentation, and execute actions beyond the normal scope of SMC and OSC duties.

For this support to work and not add to the frustration and confusion of the event, the staff must regularly train and practice as a team.

This training investment cannot be ignored.

Reality #7: The physical or emotional condition of survivors may prevent them from helping themselves.

Cold water, poor health, injuries, or emotional stress may prevent many victims from swimming to and climbing into a liferaft, or climbing out of a liferaft to a rescue vessel.

Even the smallest actions may be too large an effort for survivors to overcome without assistance. An extended time on scene in a survival craft with minimal food, water and rest will exacerbate the need for assistance.

Support needs for survivors will not end once they are on board a rescue vessel or reach shore. At landing sites, many of the survivors will be too tired to walk up a ramp or even climb aboard a bus. Some may be covered in vomit or have soiled pants.

Survivors may be cold, wet and contaminated with spilled fuel necessitating decontamin-ation and emergency clothing. The response organization must anticipate the demands and plan for survivor support along the entire continuum of care.

Realities 8 and 9 are closely tied together and will be jointly discussed.

Reality #8: Local communities are vital partners in providing shore side MRO response actions, but most have minimal guidance or training on the functions expected of them.

Reality #9: Continuum of care for rescued victims will be required. Once delivered to shore, the functions of accountability, emergency medical care, human health, shelter, food, and other survivor support needs must be continued and coordinated.

Some of the most complicated MRO work starts once the survivors hit the beach, especially if the 'beach' is remote or has limited infrastructure.

Establishing shore landing site and sheltering facilities, arranging transportation, providing medical care, food, clothing and other support all involve the local community. In fact, this portion of the response may last much longer than the on-scene rescue.

Unfortunately, many maritime response plans stop at the beach: apparently, once survivors are handed off, it's no longer our problem.

That may work for a few dozen survivors, but with several hundreds or thousands of survivors, it's unacceptable. Imagine the confusion and chaos that will result if we fail to coordinate our actions and support the port communities.

It is critical to know your partners and their responsibilities and capabilities, and to understand their expectations. Imagine going to a BBQ with neighbors and no one bringing the hot dogs because everyone expected someone else to provide them. No big deal for a picnic, but potentially fatal in an MRO response.

With real-life MRO experience limited, response planning and coordination is required for success. The efficient operation of landing sites, emergency medical services, transportation and evacuee care will depend on our joint pre-incident planning.

Several agencies may find themselves working together for the first time and confusion and competing priorities can result.

Community MRO plans, training and job aids are required, and the SAR authorities should encourage and assist port partners in this undertaking.

These plans should incorporate, not re-invent, existing local emergency response procedures and facilities, and address MRO-specific differences.

This port-level planning is especially important for large ports where MRO coordination involves multiple community jurisdictions, several potential landing sites, mass media outlets, and the potential for survivors to easily find their own way home before final accounting has taken place.

A sample small community MRO plan, and job aids for landing site and reception center operations, are at

Once the plan is finalized, basic familiarity training and local exercising of the plan will be required. Any plan is only as good as the training that accompanies it.

If no-one knows the plan exists, then it will not be used. If players are not given the chance to practice the MRO procedures developed, they will not use them but will default to what they think is best.

Reality #10: Past success does not guarantee future results. Continuous training and plan improvement is required.

Transfers, promotions and retirements within SAR agencies often replace an experienced individual with someone of less knowledge of the area or the contents of response plans. For continued success, a continual training and exercising program is paramount.

This training and practicing cannot be conducted in a vacuum. Any plans, procedures, or policies created in a vacuum will fail. To be a successful multi-agency response organization, partners need to develop, train and practice jointly and regularly.

What's next?

Hopefully, the main "take away" from this discussion is the need to refocus your energy and efforts to improve your mass rescue plans.

Go back and critically evaluate your plans – are they useful, do they include all your response partners, is a command organization identified, does everyone have clear expectations and directions, can you efficiently exchange information, do you know what information to exchange, is the command post identified, do you have an accountability process understood by everyone, how will survivors be managed ashore and who is responsible?

Look at the entire process, from the ship to the care of survivors shore side. Make sure to engage your response partners. Do not plan in a vacuum. If you do, plan to be surprised.

You can find additional help in the MRO planning guidance at

Once the plan is complete, conduct joint training to educate everyone on the plan and then exercise regularly.

After each exercise or actual event, improve the plan. Carry through on the necessary improvements.

Each successive exercise should test new solutions and not simply identify the same old problems.

There is no guarantee of success for any MRO event. However, all SAR professionals have an obligation to invest in planning for success.

Any plan should consider the ten realities discussed here, and address any others identified for your region.

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Contact Info

International Maritime Rescue Federation
50 Allardice Street
AB39 2RA
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0) 1569 767405


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