Defining Distress: Other Considerations on this Important Issue

Posted in LIFE LINE May 2018 - English

In this opinion piece Rick Button takes a look at 'Defining Distress' and offers another view of this issue.

Rick Button is the Chief, Coordination Division, Office of Search and Rescue, United States Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C., and serves as the Secretary to the United States National Search and Rescue Committee.

Mr. Button conducts outreach and engagement for the Coast Guard and the U.S. on national and international search and rescue related matters; is the program manager for the Amver search and rescue ship reporting system; and manages Coast Guard support for the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) system.

Retiring from the Coast Guard in 2006 after serving twenty-two years on active duty, he has now served eleven years in his current position. During his Coast Guard career, Mr. Button sailed on several Coast Guard cutters and twice served as commanding officer. Mr. Button is a 1984 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and is a licensed Master Mariner.

In reading David Jardine-Smith’s fine article, “SAR Matters: Defining Distress Continued….” published in the February, 2018 issue of LIFE LINE, I would take a different view concerning the question, “What is distress?” Having worked in the United States Coast Guard for over three decades, and in the Coast Guard Office of Search and Rescue for twelve years, I would not support defining “distress” in the International Convention on Search and Rescue (“SAR Convention”), the International Convention on Civil Aviation (“Chicago Convention") – Annex 12 (Search and Rescue), or in the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue (IAMSAR) Manual. Determining when a person, vessel, or aircraft is in distress is a judgment call made on scene, based on the prevailing circumstances.

If the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) has any question as to the urgency on scene, and is communicating with the person, vessel, or aircraft in question, then the RCC should ask, “Are you in distress?” How a person answers that question would dictate future actions by the RCC. However, this would in no way change how a RCC makes an emergency phase determination if there is no communication with the person, vessel, or aircraft on scene. In this case, based on the prevailing circumstances, the RCC must have a bias towards assuming a distress and coordinate a response.

For example, let’s assume “distress” is defined and incorporated into the IAMSAR Manual. What if, based on the prevailing circumstances, a person believes he is in distress, yet the situation may not fully meet the internationally agreed definition for “distress?” Should the RCC that receives the notification second-guess the person making the distress determination? If a distress determination is made by those on scene and communicated to the RCC, then, at least initially, the person, vessel, or aircraft should be considered in distress. The RCC should rightly consider, at least initially, that the incident is in the “distress phase” and take the appropriate actions to render assistance.

The SAR and Chicago Conventions provide the framework for national administrations to implement the maritime and aeronautical global SAR systems, respectively. As such, both Conventions rightly define the SAR emergency phases: uncertainty, alert, and distress. Each phase identifies policy and procedures to be followed by the RCC to coordinate the proper type of SAR response. Specifically, a determination of distress is made by a person, vessel, or aircraft based on the prevailing circumstances on scene; while the emergency phase determination is made by the RCC based on the available information. In my view, “distress” should not be defined but left to the person on scene making that determination.

The article then makes the observation that the emergency phase definitions in the SAR and Chicago Conventions and the IAMSAR Manual are not the same. Since the IAMSAR Manual is guidance for national administrations on implementing their SAR and Chicago Convention obligations, if necessary, the IAMSAR Manual can and should be revised. However, definitions enshrined in the SAR and Chicago Conventions that have served as the foundation for the global SAR system for decades should not. National SAR system policy, doctrine, and training is based on these international definitions. I would also argue that the SAR and Chicago Convention definitions (especially the distress phase) do not need to be the same because they emphasise unique aeronautical and maritime SAR system requirements.

The article then mentions that IMRF supports a change to the definition of “distress phase” because only persons are in distress. I would respectively disagree with this position! Ships and aircraft, as the vehicles transporting persons are a critical component of the on scene distress determination. Centuries-old seagoing tradition would argue that ships (and the persons on board) can be in distress. The aeronautical SAR system is activated when an aircraft (and the persons on board) is in distress. SAR authorities search for the object that is in distress, which may be people, or the craft (e.g., ship, aircraft, or other craft) in which the persons are being transported. Yes, persons would ultimately be considered in distress. However, it is the ship or aircraft that the RCC must search for and render assistance to in order to assist the persons on board.

Finally, concerning the Mediterranean migrant crisis, the article asks, “Are people motoring out to sea ‘in distress’?” It can be argued that in a maritime migration scenario the persons and vessel should not, at least initially, be considered in “distress” and the SAR Convention would not initially apply. This may seem to run counter to the position that the person or vessel on scene should make a distress determination. However, an obviously overloaded migrant vessel transiting on the high seas should be considered a transnational organized crime/border security incident first, and may become a SAR operation coordinated through the global SAR system under the SAR Convention second, should distress phase requirements be met.

I am not minimising the sheer magnitude of the challenges and tragedy of lives lost associated with the current Mediterranean migrant challenge. The U.S. Coast Guard has been dealing with a Caribbean maritime migration challenge for decades. I have personally interdicted hundreds, if not thousands of illegal migrants at sea. Over the years thousands upon thousands of persons have tragically perished at sea. Since illegal migration is an international issue, perhaps it is time for the international community to develop an international instrument specifically for illegal migration.

This problem will not be going away.

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