‘SAR Points of Contact’, or ‘SPOCs’, are defined by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as “Rescue coordination centres and other established and recognised national points of contact which can accept responsibility to receive Cospas-Sarsat alert data to enable the rescue of persons in distress”.
That’s quite a mouthful! But the SPOC is a very important link in a lifesaving chain – and there continue to be indications that its function is not always properly understood.
Saving lives needs a number of things to happen before people in distress can be rescued. First, the fact that someone is in distress needs to be known: the alarm must be raised. That alert must then be passed quickly and efficiently to someone who can initiate a response to it, usually a rescue coordination centre.
The RCC must be able to send SAR resources to conduct the rescue – and the people in distress need to be able to survive long enough for that help to arrive in time.
One very important means of raising the alarm is to turn on a radio distress beacon. Cospas-Sarsat (more about them in a moment!) estimate that there are more than two million 406 MHz radiobeacons worldwide, the signals from which can be picked up by their satellite packages and downlinked to terminals on the ground.
The alerts must then be passed to the SAR authorities for action. And this is where the SPOCs come in. As the name implies, they are contact points for Cospas-Sarsat control centres to pass the alert information to, to get it into the SAR system.
The problem that arises – currently in the case of about 20% of SPOCs – is that the information is not always acknowledged or acted upon. Perhaps the communications link nominated is not staffed 24/7; perhaps the people staffing it do not understand the message or what they are supposed to do with it.
In both cases this is primarily a matter of training – of the administrators responsible for setting up and running the SPOC, and of its operators. The IMRF is seeking to improve understanding of the problem and to encourage its resolution.
The International Cospas-Sarsat Programme’s mission is to provide “accurate, timely, and reliable distress alert and location data to help SAR authorities assist persons in distress”. There are four Parties to the programme – Canada, France, Russia and the USA – and about 40 other countries who play various roles in helping it function.
Cospas-Sarsat coordinate the efforts of participating Governments to deploy the resources necessary to detect and locate distress beacons and report that information to SAR authorities – but it does not act as a regulatory body and it does not itself provide a SAR service. These are functions of national Governments. Cospas-Sarsat is an information provider.
It does this through a network of distress radiobeacons, satellites, Local User Terminals and Mission Control Centres. Beacon types include Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs, for aviation use), Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs, for maritime use), and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs, for personal use, principally on land).
The space segments are mounted in satellites in geostationary and low-altitude Earth orbits (GEOSAR & LEOSAR), and will move to an improved medium-altitude system now under development (MEOSAR).
Instruments on board the satellites detect beacon signals and downlink them to Local User Terminals; ground receiving stations which process the information received to generate distress alerts. Cospas-Sarsat Mission Control Centres then forward the alerts direct to rescue coordination centres, or to SPOCs. (Please see www.cospas-sarsat.int for full information on the system.)
It is the SPOCs’ responsibility to ensure that rapid and reliable two-way communication is established so that SAR services can be provided to those in distress within survival times.
If the SPOC is not itself the appropriate RCC, it must pass the alert on without delay. To make this work, the Mission Control Centres and SPOCs must have reliable communication links and operational procedures, including backup routines. Cospas-Sarsat regularly test these communication links; and it is these tests which show up the breaks in the chain.
A successful test requires positive feedback from the SPOC (not an automatic acknowledgement). But Cospas-Sarsat report that some SPOCs tested consistently fail to respond as they should: in a disturbing number of cases no response is received by the Mission Control Centre at all.
In 2015 12.8% of SPOCs were entirely unresponsive and a further 7% responded less than 50% of the time. A total of 19.8% of SPOCs were “insufficiently responsive”. Data for 2016 suggests that this problem continues. Put simply, if a SPOC does not work, the alerting system fails. The alert from the distress radiobeacon is not passed to SAR responders, and people die unnecessarily as a result.
Seeking to address the problem, Cospas-Sarsat have produced a model agreement template for use by MCCs and SPOCs. The template may be downloaded from https://www.cospas-sarsat.int/en/mcc-spoc-model-agreement-template.
If you have a role in this area, or are in doubt about how the system is meant to work, we encourage you to visit the website.
With two million plus beacons out there, ensuring that the alerting process works is vital. SAR authorities are encouraged to ensure that their SPOC is reliable, 100% responsive to tests and to real alerts, quick to positively acknowledge the alert and quick to act on it, passing the alert on to SAR facilities without delay.
To be able to do this the SPOC needs to be properly equipped, with back-up systems in place, and to be staffed 24/7 by fully trained personnel.
SPOCs are a key part of the lifeline. They need to be reliably responsive to all distress alerts.