The challenges of mass SAR operations and importance of international collaboration
The acute migration crisis in the Mediterranean Sea has brought the issue of search and rescue (SAR) – both military and civilian – starkly to the fore over the last 12 months. More investment is needed in platforms, equipment, personnel, and training. But more than that, there needs to be more awareness at the political level of the pressing challenges facing SAR authorities from the High North to Australia. Mass rescue, international collaboration, and getting ‘more bang for your buck’ from equipment, especially in regards to surveillance capabilities, are all pressing priorities for the SAR community.
Ahead of the Search and Rescue conference taking place in Copenhagen between 7 – 9 June 2016, Defence IQ spoke with two of the presenters to understand more about the challenges militaries, civilian agencies, coast guards and the police face in SAR operations. Commander Sirio Faé is the deputy of Rome’s Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) in the Italian Coast Guard; and Bjùrn Bay is Greenland’s chief of police. Since the conference has been timed to take place shortly after the Arctic LIVEX16 training exercise in Greenland in May, we also wanted to understand the benefits of – and indeed immediate need for – greater international cooperation, coordination, and interoperability.
"The most challenging aspect to manage in SAR operations is communication, especially in terms of quantity," said Commander Sirio Faé.
"It is necessary to enable communication flow and be able to reduce the amount of redundant information; to route that data that is not strictly relevant to the operation to other areas in order to only focus on what is directly involved in the coordination of SAR operations.
Commander Faé explained that one of the possible solutions for this is to increase the capability SAR agencies have to exchange information using text, data, and image communications.
Another vital component to consider is the quality and capability of life-saving equipment on board merchant vessels. For these ships to make a more effective contribution to SAR operations and help with the evacuation of crew and passengers from vessels in distress, they need to be better prepared and equipped. This is especially true in areas that are far from the coast and not easily reachable by helicopter.
"For mass rescue operations that require a high number of helicopters it is very important to have the capability to coordinate take-off, landing, the rescue activity of each helicopter to maximize endurance and avoiding ineffectual waiting times, or fly safety problems," said Faé.
"This becomes even more difficult when there are many agencies or different countries that provide helicopters for the same incident. It is necessary to develop more effective command and control tools, interconnected among force providers and neighboring RCCs."
In fact this issue of communication is something Bjùrn Bay, the chief of police in Greenland, feels strongly about too. When Defence IQ spoke to Greenland’s police chief, which is one of three SAR authorities in Greenland along with the Joint Arctic Command (Danish Defense) and Naviair (Danish transportation Authority), he said if he had just one piece of advice for the SAR community it would be to improve the communication capabilities in remote areas.
"The remote locations are obviously a major challenge," said Bay. "Bringing emergency crews in and getting survivors out is a major challenge – even in good weather conditions. Communicating with the on scene crews is a part of this challenge.
"Cruise ships should always be within a few hours of each other. In my opinion in remote areas a cruise ship is one of the only ways you can efficiently accommodate and cater for the survivors from another cruise ship."
Bay said that international exercises like LIVEX16 might help convince legislators of the importance of ensuring that one cruise ships is always within a few hours range from another.
International coordination – Arctic LIVEX16
Arctic LIVEX16 is a full scale exercise planned by Danish Defense, the Danish Emergency Management Authority, and Danish National Police. It is being held in Greenland in 2016.
"It is an exercise with two main goals," Bay said. "To improve the cooperation between all parties involved in a crisis situation in Greenland , such as the fire department, health authorities, environment
authorities, the municipality, Greenland Government, Joint Arctic Command, Greenland Police, private companies, and national authorities in Denmark including the whole national crisis setup in Denmark.
"The other goal is a more isolated military goal, where Danish Defense wants to improve the deployment of the new Arctic Response Force."
The setup of the exercise is thought to be similar to a desktop exercise the service did in 2014.
"I expect a cruise ship to get in serious trouble near Nuuk – perhaps colliding with another vessel," Bay said. "I expect both casualties and the need to evacuate both passengers and crewmembers – some with severe injuries. I also expect a major environmental issue. Beside the SAR-perspective, the Greenland Police [which is responsible for 85% of all SAR operations in Greenland – around 100 a year] also have the more traditional police and prosecution perspective. We of course have to investigate what has happened, if a crime has taken place at the same time, and who’s responsible and so on."
"SAR is normally done very efficient by the authorities in Greenland together with the whole Greenlandic society – including traditional local fishermen and hunters, recreational boats and hikers, private companies such as Air Greenland and trawlers. But in the case of a major incident, assistance from other countries will often be of great value, especially in very remote parts of Greenland. In these cases knowledge about procedures would be of great value, which hopefully the exercise will give us."
"More generally I also hope to heighten knowledge and understand between the different parties and as a result improve the cooperation between us, including the handling of issues such as responsibility and jurisdiction in an efficient and practical way."
LIVEX16 is important because, according to Bay, the need to deal with a large scale SAR incident is a matter of when, not if.
"From my perspective I hope to increase the overall emergency awareness in regards to major incidents at the political level, as well as with authorities who normally don’t see themselves as being responsible for SAR and emergency operations. The training and awareness of the logistical issues is also very important."
For mass rescue operations, clearly international organisations, government agencies and militaries need to coordinate. The LIVEX16 exercise should provide vital training and experience – and not to mention lessons learned – for all those involved. But do nations need more equipment and platforms that are interoperable with each other? Are more multi-national training exercises needed?
"In general more integration would desirable – it is the main way to integrate existing SAR systems to mass rescue operations in a cost effective way," Commander Faé said. "The equipment that is the biggest priority for interoperability is the communication systems used between naval and air assets of different agencies. Multinational training is very important, especially among neighbouring countries. In the Mediterranean we experimented how multinational exercises, such as the ones performed for the SAR MEDOCC agreement, help in improving coordination capabilities."
"Experience shows that one of the major challenges for the SAR system is naval gigantism, especially when there are incidents involving thousands of people that can't abandon the ship using life boats or life rafts due to fire, bad weather or listing," he continued.
"The integration and coordination among different agencies in a position to provide assets is paramount. First of all it is important to integrate existing SAR systems according to a shared risk analysis involving neighbouring countries and to integrate the availability of SAR assets to cover areas where the existing resources are not sufficient."