Mass Rescue Conference Highlights Capability Gaps and Importance of Planning

Posted in MRO News

Dr Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, President, World Maritime University, delivers keynote speech:

More must be done to emphasise the importance of maritime mass rescue operation planning and to fill global gaps in search and rescue (SAR) response capability. This was Dr Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry’s message to delegates at the opening of the 4th International Maritime Mass Rescue Conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, last week.

Dr Doumbia-Henry, President of the World Maritime University, told delegates that learning from experience and exchanging views among SAR practitioners are essential. Recent experience in the Mediterranean has shown the need for mass rescue capability and preparedness. Increasing vessel traffic in Arctic waters highlights the need to improve currently inadequate SAR resources for such a challenging environment. And the need for all levels of SAR capability in the developing world continues to outpace resources.

The conference, run by the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) and hosted by the Swedish Sea Rescue Society (SSRS), is the most important event of its kind, attracting SAR practitioners from all over the world. Last week’s event was sold out, with 140 delegates from 25 countries attending.

The conference started with a practical exercise, which took place around the small islets off Långedrag and involved more than 200 people and 20 rescue boats. The delegates took lead roles in the rescue boat crews, at an exercise Rescue Coordination Centre, and at landing sites, while volunteers from the SSRS and other local SAR services acted as casualties and safety cover.

Bruce Reid, CEO of the IMRF, commented: "The Sunday exercise was, we believe, unique in putting conference delegates in the lead. It gave a vivid demonstration of the challenges of a maritime mass rescue operation, with delegates experiencing first-hand the difficulties of finding more than 70 people scattered across islands, many of them ‘injured’ or unresponsive, and delivering them into the care of reception centre personnel on the mainland. Coordination and communication again proved some of the biggest problems. Managing and accounting for large groups of distressed and injured people quickly and efficiently proved almost too hard in the exercise – which was the way it was designed to be. Seeing and trying to deal with a problem yourself, out on the water, in a coordination centre or at a landing site, is more powerful than only talking about it in a conference auditorium."

Monday and Tuesday of the conference were dedicated to lessons learned, using real case studies to enable delegates and specialist panellists to discuss key areas of mass rescue operations, focusing on the conference themes of Rescue, Coordination, Communication and Planning. The case studies were presented by people involved in the actual events, which provided the delegates with first-hand accounts. Key points raised in the discussions arising from the case studies will be added to the IMRF online resource library at

Boats during the MRO exercise2Other keynote speakers at the conference included Mr Wang Zhenliang, Director-General of China Rescue and Salvage, and Alexandros Liamos, Operations Manager of the Hellenic Rescue Team, who described the support given to his organisation by the IMRF in the face of the Aegean migrant crisis. Fredrik Forsman brought the ‘human element’ to the discussions as he provided delegates with his personal experience in the Aegean, as part of the Swedish Yellow Boat Project. Fredrik helped rescue hundreds of people but had to accept that not all those in distress could be saved. The presentation reminded all in the room that rescues are made by people, and that the impact on rescuers themselves must not be overlooked.

IMRF MRO Project manager David Jardine-Smith says: "Mass rescue operations, as defined by the International Maritime Organization, are beyond normal SAR capability. They are therefore of vital interest to anyone with a role in SAR planning and response."

"They are rare, at least in the developed world, but extremely challenging, which is why it’s so important to plan and train and to build relationships with the right people before a response is needed. Because it’s not ‘if’, but ‘when’; and the better prepared the responders are, the more lives they will save."

Bruce Reid adds: "The feedback from the delegates has been very positive and we are extremely grateful to all of our partners who have come together to make an event on this scale a possibility."

The International Maritime Rescue Federation is a charity and the only organization to represent and unite search and rescue providers around the world, sharing best practice and knowledge and representing this important sector at the UN’s International Maritime Organization.

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