Mayday, Mayday, Mayday ... This is the cruise ship Nonsuch. Have been in collision... Sinking... Abandoning... Seven thousand five hundred people aboard..."
Let's face it: whether you are a seafarer or a search and rescue (SAR) professional, this is not a message you ever want to hear. Fortunately, such an event is rare.
One of those rare occasions was the sinking of the Costa Concordia in 2012. She had more than four thousand people aboard when she tore herself open on Giglio – far fewer than the Nonsuch. But there are cruise ships afloat today capable of carrying well over eight thousand people – double Costa Concordia's number. And, around the world, accidents which leave hundreds of people in distress are not so rare, even if we do not always hear about them on the news.
So... what would you do if one day you heard that call from the Nonsuch, and knew that you had to respond?
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) defines rescue as the 'operation to retrieve persons in distress, provide for their initial medical or other needs and deliver them to a place of safety', and a mass rescue operation as 'characterised by the need for immediate response to large numbers of persons in distress such that the capabilities normally available to the SAR authorities are inadequate'.
Another way of putting this is to say that there are more people to rescue – and remember the full extent of what 'rescue' means – than the local SAR services can manage.
That may sound very negative. 'This is more than we can cope with... We can't rescue everyone...'
But that should not be the case. A more positive way of looking at the problem is to say that mass rescue operations require special responses – which means special planning.
That such events are rare is, of course, a good thing. But it also means that no-one can justify maintaining enough dedicated SAR resources to be able to handle them 'routinely'.
Preparing for mass rescue operations means identifying where the extra resource required will come from, and how to coordinate a full response. The IMO define such an operation in terms of a capability gap. The question we, as potential responders, have to address is how to fill that gap.
First let's examine what a 'mass rescue operation' actually is. The IMO's definition does not mention passenger ships, or any other particular cause. It focuses, absolutely correctly, on SAR capability. Even the most developed SAR services have limits. There may be sufficient dedicated SAR units available to rescue scores or even hundreds of people close to those units' bases, and in benign conditions. But what if the accident occurs in bad weather, or in a remote area, beyond the SAR units' reach? And what if there are few, or no, local rescue boats or aircraft? Just a few people in distress may require a 'mass rescue operation' if you do not have resources enough to recover them within their survival time.
Mass rescue operations, then, are best thought of in terms of that capability gap. They are rare, but they happen and they should be planned for by all the potential stakeholders – governments, emergency response organisations and industry – working together.
As an international charity with consultative status at the IMO, the IMRF represents the world's maritime SAR community, bringing SAR organisations of all kinds together to share ideas, technologies and lessons learned. We seek to develop or improve SAR capability worldwide.
There are large gaps in the global maritime SAR system. Many States do not have a fully developed SAR service: some have no SAR capability at all. The IMRF exists to address this shortfall, by promoting cooperation between existing maritime SAR services and assisting in establishing new services. We do this through a wide variety of regional and bilateral initiatives and a series of international projects, including our project on maritime mass rescue operations.
The aim of this project is to provide an international focus on mass rescue at, or by, sea, and a forum for discussion. We aim to identify specific problems which will benefit from further research or amendments to international regulation and guidance. We are compiling a dynamic, web-based library of practical data; a user-friendly guide to anyone seeking to plan their response to a mass rescue event. Some guidance material is already available on our website and we intend to have the full library available by early 2015. And we have developed a mass rescue operations workshop package, to encourage local and regional discussion and preparedness. We run these workshops around the world on request.
The IMRF also has an ongoing series of international conferences on mass rescue – the 'Gothenburg series', so named because, to date, they have been hosted by the Swedish Sea Rescue Society at their headquarters in that city. The third in the series will be held on 1-3 June 2014.
Previous conferences in the series helped to highlight and address many of the challenges associated with mass rescue operations, from recovery of people at sea to their coordinated transfer to the shore. The 2014 conference will focus on developing and sharing practical solutions to the problems previously identified, under the following main headings:
• integrating the preparation and planning efforts of all stakeholders, including industry;
• enhancing incident coordination and establishing supportive response systems; and
• improving cohesion between all stakeholders to optimise response capability.
The conference will include a mass rescue simulation exercise and other practical activities, as well as case studies and a major exercise report. There will also be an 'open space' opportunity to discuss the issues with representatives of the passenger shipping industry, SAR authorities, and emergency response organisations, and an opportunity to contribute to the IMO's and the IMRF's mass rescue operations guidance.
No-one wants to hear that call from the Nonsuch, or to have to respond to any incident beyond our normal capabilities. But these things will happen to someone – maybe you: and you can be prepared.