Mass-rescue forum focuses on 'preparing for the unprepared'

The following is the text of a news release from the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF):

(STONEHAVEN, United Kingdom) — What's the worst that can happen at sea? A passenger ferry capsizing? A cruise ship on fire? An airliner ditching? An oil rig explosion? Any incident that requires the rescue of large numbers of people at sea will be immensely challenging – and is likely to be beyond normal response capabilities. What can be done about that? How can we prepare for such events?

The International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) has held a maritime mass-rescue operations subject-matter expert course – believed to be the first of its kind – at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, on June 14-16.

The event attracted 40 senior personnel with emergency planning responsibilities from 18 countries: Australia, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Hong Kong, Iceland, Malaysia, the Maldives, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Uruguay and the United States.

"This course has brought senior emergency planners together to discuss common challenges and highlight important issues relating to maritime mass-rescue operations," said Bruce Reid, the IMRF's chief executive. "Working together, we can share our experiences and ideas. While we cannot stop accidents occurring, we do have the capacity, by working with SAR services around the world, to improve preparedness and save more lives."

Mass-rescue operations are, by international definition, beyond normal search and rescue (SAR) capability: there are more people in distress than there are SAR units available to save them. How many people this will be depends on the circumstances – location, weather and sea conditions, the availability of rescue craft locally – but mass-rescue operations are a global concern, in developed as well as developing states. Emergency response organizations need to "be prepared for the unprepared," ready to respond to emergencies of a scale they are not resourced for – which may be rare, but are extremely challenging.

The aim of the course was to study in depth the generic issues identified by the IMRF's mass-rescue operations project, enabling the participants to develop subject-matter expertise. Focus on the issues enables the review and development of detailed plans to fill the "capability gap" back home. The participants worked in facilitated breakout sessions to discuss the issues in turn, coming together again to present their results. There was also a lively tabletop exercise delivered by specialists from the United States Coast Guard, which allowed some of the mass-rescue challenges to be demonstrated in an example scenario, based on a passenger ferry fire.

"This has been the best brain-drain session on SAR that I have attended in my 18-year career," said Ahmed Mujuthaba Mohamed, commanding officer of the Maldives National Defense Force Coast Guard. "It was beneficial in every aspect of mass-rescue operations and maritime SAR, with so much experience and knowledge shared passionately among colleagues from all corners. I am sincerely grateful to the IMRF for opening this avenue for the Maldives and its SAR community, where this experience will be utilized in the best way possible."

"The commitment and enthusiasm of all involved in this course was great to see," said the IMRF's mass-rescue operations project manager, David Jardine-Smith. "The participants are well aware that they or their organizations may have to conduct a mass-rescue operation one day, and they are determined to be as ready as they can. They know it's not 'if' but 'when' …

"We will now be following up with the participants for their thoughts on this first course, and will offer it elsewhere as resources become available. We also want to hear what the effects of the course have been – how it has helped the participants prepare for mass rescue."

The course was run with the support of the EU Picasso Project, which aims to achieve modern and well-developed maritime transport, with a well-trained and up-to-date work force, that enables the sector to become greener, safer and more efficient and sustainable. For more information on the project, see, and on the course hosts, Chalmers University of Technology,

By Professional Mariner Staff