Global rescue mission

Published: 18 Sep 2017

David Jardine-Smith served with Bank Line before becoming a UK Coastguard officer. He tells ANDREW LININGTON how this has led to his work to improve global maritime search and rescue standards…

Reliable figures are hard to come by, but it’s estimated that anything between 140,000 and 400,000 people a year lose their lives in the world’s waters — often in accidents in which improved maritime search and rescue (SAR) coordination and response may  have made a crucial difference.

Global rescue mission smallWith the growth of ‘mega’ cruiseships carrying 6,000 passengers and more, an increase in ‘expedition’ and ‘adventure’ cruises in remote areas, and the continuing challenge of overcrowded, poorly maintained and elderly ferries in many parts of the world, the challenges facing SAR organisations are immense and complex.

Against this background, a UK-based charity — the International Maritime Rescue  Federation (IMRF) — is spearheading efforts to raise global standards, improve resources, share knowledge and promote ‘best practice’ for saving lives at sea.

Former Merchant Navy officer David Jardine-Smith serves as the Federation’s secretary, representing the IMRF at the International Maritime Organisation and leading its mass rescue operations (MRO) project to plan for large-scale incidents that would stretch even the strongest SAR bodies.

‘We act as advocates for maritime SAR and the organisations providing that service,’ he explains. ‘It’s all about sharing good ideas and bad experiences so that developing countries in particular, as well as organisations looking to set up and  improve services, can learn from what has happened elsewhere.’

The ‘sharing’ ethos of the organisation reflects its roots as a body created in 1924 to represent lifeboat service providers around the world — many of which have traditionally been voluntary non-governmental organisations. Founded as the International Lifeboat Conference (ILF), it began the process of cooperation and collaboration to raise maritime SAR standards and as resources developed from small rescue craft operated by local communities into the provision of marine radio communications, rescue helicopters and other technological advances, its name was changed in 2007 to the International Maritime Rescue Federation.

IMRF now has more than 100 members, drawn from all around the world.

‘We’re not just about rescue boats, but all the other services and providers — such as shore-based centres and SAR aircraft,’ David points out.

‘However, we are not a member club,’ he stresses. ‘We need membership funding to keep going, but we share everything in terms of best practice and learning and it’s all available open-source and online.’

Global rescue mission small 2A core element of the Federation’s work is representing the SAR community at the International Maritime Organisation — including input into its review of GMDSS and the  harmonisation of international and aeronautical and maritime SAR, and the development of the forthcoming new edition of the IAMSAR manual. There’s also what David describes as ‘defending the principles of SAR’ — raising awareness of services with governments and relevant authorities. ‘Just because there hasn’t been a huge headline-grabbing incident doesn’t mean it is not necessary,’ he points out.

Talking of headlines, however, the subject of rescues in the Mediterranean has certainly been huge. The IMRF has worked with the International Chamber of Shipping, the IMO and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to ensure that the role of merchant ships in responding to the migrant crisis has been properly addressed.

‘Initially, there was a major concern about the impact on ships from the SAR point of view and concerns that some masters might look the other way,’ David reflects. ‘However, those concerns have been addressed and Malta and Italy in particular have done a  magnificent job in getting people off the ships as soon as possible.’

The Federation also worked with a group of five European rescue services, including the RNLI, to provide equipment and expertise to help the Greek lifeboat service to respond to

the crisis. It also helped to develop a voluntary code of conduct for SAR at sea to assist organisations such as the Migrant Offshore Station in their work to prevent loss of life on some of the deadliest migration routes.

The IMRF’s work in the Mediterranean has close parallels with one of its core projects: mass rescue operations (MRO) — how to deal with a situation that the IMO defines as an incident which is so large that no single SAR agency has the capacity or resources to deal with. The initiative began following the 1994 Estonia ferry disaster in which 852 passengers and crew died. Baltic states were keen to see lessons from the accident being acted upon and new SOLAS rules were brought in to require passengerships on international routes to have plans in place to cooperate with SAR services in the event of an emergency.

‘The introduction of ships carrying as many as 8,000 people worries SAR organisations, of course,’ David says. ‘But it is not just the big ships that we are interested in. It could be an offshore energy accident, an aircraft ditching or even a shore-side accident in which there is a potential for a maritime response. In the 9/11 incident, for example, there was a huge maritime rescue operation in which thousands of people were evacuated from the southern tip of Manhattan island.

‘What we are seeking to do with MRO is to identify the capability gaps and how to fill them — including sharing SAR resources regionally, identifying additional SAR resources such as pilot boats and fishing vessels, and providing onscene support until those in distress can be rescued,’ he explains.

To achieve these aims, the project is exchanging experiences and information, and running workshops and exercises for representatives from SAR organisations. ‘We don’t tell them what to do, but do tell them what to think about and what the problems might be,’ David says. ‘We are not saying that these are the answers, but we are saying that these are the questions and you can provide the answers. Local solutions can only be developed locally.’

Many of these issues were addressed at the IMRF’s recent maritime mass rescue conference — which not only included a live mass rescue exercise, but also launched a new high-level mass rescue training course, which was held at Chalmers University, in the Swedish port city of Gothenburg. The course has been developed to help with planning for mass rescue incidents, identifying resources and the need for good communications and coordination — especially with shore-side responders.

David says he believes SAR provision is improving globally — and he is particularly pleased with the work that has been done in Africa to develop regional rescue centres. IMRF members helped with the IMO initiative, including training staff to run the new facilities.

He suggests that technology could bring new benefits to SAR capabilities — including the use of drones and autonomous vessels. However, he says there is a need to remember that not all countries can afford to invest in high-end equipment and that by no means all incidents involve SOLAS vessels, with most ferry accidents occurring in developing nations.

Most ferry accidents occur in the developing world and the conference will bring together experts to share experiences and learning to help both developed and developing countries improve their emergency responses.

David is also keen to generate more discussion between the Federation, the shipping industry and individual seafarers.

‘When you are sailing your ships into areas in which SAR provision can be very poor, it is in your interests to improve it,’ he points out. ‘We want you to consider what you would do if you have a problem, and also if someone calls you up and you have to be an on-scene commander.

Find out more at the International Maritime Rescue Federation website:

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