IMO Considers Search and Rescue Management Changes

life raft
One of Estonia's inflatable life rafts, filled with water.

By Wendy Laursen 2016-02-12 11:22:35

The IMO’s sub-committee on Navigation, Communications and Search and Rescue will meet on February 29, and the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) is asking the committee to consider some important changes to search and rescue requirements.

“We are co-sponsoring two papers at this session, both on issues led by our colleagues in Finland. The first suggests a way forward on making necessary improvements in SAR cooperation planning,” says David Jardine-Smith, IMRF General-Secretary.

“This is all about information sharing between passenger ships and SAR authorities, aimed at improved mutual awareness and cooperation in the event of an accident. Establishing good liaison between SAR services and cruise ships trading through many SAR regions is difficult, and we are seeking ways of improving the process.”

The concept of SAR cooperation planning stems from the 1994 Estonia disaster. The ship sank in the Baltic Sea, and 852 people died. Investigators found that a lack of mutual understanding between passenger ships and the SAR services had hindered the response. SOLAS was subsequently amended to require the exchange of information, and emergency response exercises. 

“The value of establishing a relationship and exchanging core information between passenger ships and SAR authorities is long agreed,” says Jardine-Smith. “But the process has always been hard to administer for ships trading through many SAR regions, such as some cruise ships, and we are now at an interim stage in the IMO’s work to improve this situation.”

SOLAS regulations require large passenger ships to have a plan on board for cooperation with appropriate search and rescue services in event of an emergency. The aim of the plan is to enhance mutual understanding between a passenger ship, the passenger ship's company and the global SAR services so that, in the event of an emergency, all three entities will be able to work together efficiently. The company is responsible for completing, distributing and keeping up to date the three controlled copies of the plan that are held by the ship, the company and the SAR services or the SAR data provider.

Following the Costa Concordia incident, the results of the Paris MoU Harmonized Verification Program indicated that the fourth most common deficiencies recorded related to SAR plans for cooperation.

Recent examinations of SAR plans for cooperation have identified several issues, including the following:
1. The SAR plan for cooperation is a stand-alone document, not a part of a ship's safety management system (SMS) required by the ISM Code, which could reflect less attention by ship's officers and company representatives, potentially resulting in plans not being appropriately reviewed;
2. The use of an SAR data provider by ships transiting through multiple SAR regions, including provision of a SAR plan for cooperation and related listing in the SAR Cooperation Plans Index, has different interpretations by flag States;
3. Some SAR plans for cooperation were drawn up only in the ship's working language. The plan should also be available in English;
4. The "Date Amended" column in the Index can be misunderstood;
5. The shipping companies encounter difficulties retrieving information regarding SAR services required in the SAR cooperation plan in a coherent form.

The IMRF believes that it would be logical, and administratively beneficial, to include SAR cooperation plans in the SMS. They also propose that shipping companies submit their plans online, directly to a central, restricted access database.

The second paper submitted to IMO asks SAR authorities to trial Finland’s Vessel Triage system, a concept IMRF believes to be of use in mass rescue situations in particular. 

The Vessel Triage method applies the principles of medical triage to shipping accidents. A uniform, international categorization method describing the status of a vessel in difficulty would be of benefit in assessing the seriousness of the vessel's safety situation and facilitating decision-making regarding search and rescue, says Jardine-Smith. 

The method expresses the safety status of a vessel in terms of four categories: Green, Yellow, Red and Black. The safety status of a vessel is least compromised when its Vessel Triage category is green. Black represents the most unsafe conditions. 

The Vessel Triage category is determined based on the assessed severity of six threat factors:
- Flooding;
- Listing, decrease of stability;
- Decrease of manoeuvrability;
- Black-out;
- Fire, explosion; and
- Danger posed by hazardous substances.

The IMRF has consultative status at the IMO and speaks on behalf of maritime SAR people worldwide. Jardine-Smith says the initiatives are works in progress, and any decisions arising from them will be forwarded to the Maritime Safety Committee for further consideration.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.