The IMRF at the IMO

Posted in MRO News

As IMRF Members and regular readers of LIFE LINE will know, the IMRF is the only non-governmental organisation dealing with SAR to hold consultative status at the International Maritime Organization (the IMO – the United Nations’ specialised agency responsible for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships). As such we are our member organisations’ representatives and the ‘voice of maritime SAR’ at the UN level.

Our work at the IMO is part of our ‘advocacy and influencing’ work. It helps fulfil our objectives of representing the global SAR community effectively and pushing for the completion of the global SAR plan envisaged under the relevant international Conventions – the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, the Maritime SAR Convention, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The IMO is a large and complex organisation, with a very wide range of subjects on its agenda. It handles its workload through a number of Committees and technical Sub-Committees, each meeting at its headquarters in London for a week or more’s hard work by the Member State and NGO delegates and the representatives of other Intergovernmental organisations attending.

The IMO does not move quickly – and this is generally a good thing: rushed regulation is often flawed. Items for debate have first to be proposed to and agreed by the relevant parent Committee – in the case of SAR matters, the Maritime Safety Committee – and will then usually be passed to one of the technical Sub-Committees for detailed discussion. The Sub-Committee may take one or more annual sessions to complete a work item – which is then passed back to the parent Committee for final approval or (occasionally) otherwise.

It can thus take two or three years for even non-binding guidance to be developed and agreed, and longer still for new or significantly amended regulations. ‘Slow but, hopefully, sure’ is the watchword! It is certainly no easy matter to introduce new subjects or react quickly to innovation, which can be a little frustrating – but the need to achieve consensus across 171 Member States requires patience and careful thought; and those are good things.

The main Sub-Committee dealing with SAR matters is NCSR – the Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation, Communications and Search and Rescue. NCSR meets once a year, and usually has a very full agenda indeed. So it in turn delegates detailed items of SAR work to an expert Joint Working Group on SAR established by the IMO and its sister body, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The Joint Working Group also meets for a week each year. Among other things it acts as the editing body for the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue (IAMSAR) Manual.

The IMRF is always represented at meetings of NCSR and the Joint Working Group, and attends the Maritime Safety Committee and other IMO meetings when the agenda requires it. IMRF Members may find reports of the IMO meetings in the Library on our website. But we also include summary reports in LIFE LINE – so let’s have a look at some of the work done by NCSR when it met earlier in the year, and some of the work the IMRF is now involved with on behalf of the Joint Working Group.

Availability of IMO Documents

The IMO publishes a great deal of useful guidance, either for sale or made freely available – but hard to locate on the extensive IMO website. A list prepared by the IMRF of material relevant to SAR organisations is now being published by the IMO Secretariat. (Note that IMO publications are available from the IMRF’s online bookshop, at a 20% discount to IMRF Members, and the freely available guidance may also be found on our website, at


Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS)

GADSS, developed by ICAO in the wake of the MH370 disaster, addresses all phases of flight, including distress situations. The GADSS Concept of Operation details the sequence of events before and after an accident, and has potential impact on maritime SAR. Maritime SAR authorities are therefore encouraged to coordinate closely with civil aviation authorities, and each should invite the other to SAR workshops, etc.


ICS guidance on ‘Large Scale Rescue Operations’

The International Chamber of Shipping have published the second edition of their guidance on ‘large scale rescue operations at sea’, which focusses on the rescue of migrants and asylum-seekers. NCSR has encouraged its dissemination as widely as possible. The document may be found on the IMRF website, at


Vessel Triagehigh sided vessel recoverya

SAR authorities are urged to visit, where full details of Finland’s maritime emergency risk assessment process are available, and to trial the system.


SAR Cooperation Plans

Under the SOLAS Convention, SAR cooperation plans must be developed between passenger ships trading internationally, their operators and relevant SAR services. Guidance on how this should be done is contained in MSC Circular 1079 (available at

The aim is to facilitate early and good communication between the main parties responding to passenger ship emergencies. However, although the system generally works well for ferries, it does not always work for ships trading through many SAR regions, such as cruise ships.

NCSR has been tasked with proposing amendments to the guidance, and has now asked the Joint Working Group (meeting in September) to consider the matter further and prepare redrafted guidance. The IMRF is fully involved in this work.


Review of the GMDSS

The initial detailed review of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System has now been completed. The next action is the development of a modernisation plan by a correspondence group coordinated by the United States. The IMRF’s chief role in this process so far has been to emphasise that vessels which are not themselves part of IMO’s remit – such as fishing vessels and small craft – still require distress alerting and communications systems which, ideally, will be covered under the GMDSS without requiring expensive equipment fits or refits.

We also want to ensure that any revision will not impose undue financial burdens on developing SAR States.


costa concordia 15 Mass Rescue Operations

Turning to the ICAO / IMO Joint Working Group, which will meet in Berlin in September, the IMRF has been asked to consider the current guidance on mass rescue operations in the IAMSAR Manual, comparing it with the guidance developed as part of our own project (see, and to propose amendments as necessary.



Volume III of the IAMSAR Manual is the ‘Mobile Facilities’ volume, meant to be carried aboard international shipping and aircraft. It has grown by accretion over the years, and is not very user-friendly. The IMRF has suggested that its contents should be reorganised so that users can find the information they need more readily in an emergency.

We are now working with Joint Working Group colleagues on a revised framework, to be introduced in the 2019 edition. (The 2016 edition of IAMSAR has now been published and more information can be found here.)


LEDs and NVGs

The problem of some LEDs in safety and rescue equipment being invisible to light-intensifying equipment such as Night Vision Goggles has recently been brought to the IMRF’s attention – see ‘In the Dark’ in this edition of LIFE LINE. We will be bringing it to the Joint Working Group’s formal attention in September.

It’s clear that there is a great deal going on at the IMO, and the IMRF – in keeping with our functions as representatives and advocates – is fully involved in it whenever required.

IMRF Members are more than welcome to join in. If you would like to observe a meeting you can apply to join the IMRF delegation, and if you have a particular interest in any of the subjects under debate the IMRF team will be glad to hear from you: email David Jardine-Smith ( for more information.

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