One of the key drivers behind the development in maritime mass rescue operations over the last 30 years has been the ''MS Estonia'' disaster in 1994.

The ship was a ro-ro passenger ferry sailing from Estonia to Sweden in poor weather. It sank with 989 people on board, and while helicopters and ships searched the area, only 137 people were saved, making it one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century.

The IMO took regulatory action in response, which included improving communications between passenger ships and SAR services, but many working in maritime SAR, particularly those located in Scandinavia, felt that more was needed. There were major concerns too about less well-reported disasters, outside IMO’s remit. The loss of the ferry Doña Paz in the Philippines in December 1987 cost about 4000 lives: the largest ever loss of life at sea in peacetime. In 2010, the IMRF held its first maritime Mass Rescue Operations (MRO) conference.

The main challenges of mass rescue operations are their scale, complexity, and rarity. They are by definition, beyond normal SAR service capability. The IMRF’s MRO conferences are primarily focused on raising awareness and improving planning. David Jardine-Smith, who leads the organisation’s ongoing mass rescue operations project, says:

“One thing that has become very clear in our experience is that if you have focused on the possibilities that might arise in a maritime mass rescue operation beforehand, and you have prepared as best you can, your response will be significantly improved. Which means that you will probably save more lives. It’s as simple as that.”

The planning scenarios could involve a large passenger vessel, an offshore installation or, as seen in recent years in the Mediterranean, many 100s of refugees in distress, in unseaworthy boats. Airliners ditching and evacuations by sea after a land-based disaster are further examples.

The Mediterranean has seen the arrival of 113,614 refugees by sea in 2017, and the deaths of 2,378 people. Under the relevant UN and IMO conventions States are responsible for ensuring, so far as possible, the rescue and safe and rapid disembarkation of people rescued at sea.

Every country has an upper limit for their available SAR resources, but regardless of where that limit is, planning is essential to prepare for a situation where the limit might be breached.

The IMRF has found that inter-agency and regional communication is key: it’s a case of the more discussion the better. The IMRF works through its member organisations at a grass roots level in many parts of the world, to encourage thinking and planning. In countries where resources are limited the concept of sharing is particularly valuable.

Training courses and workshops have been developed by the IMRF specifically for those responsible for planning and emergency provision. The organisation also uses a ‘train the trainer’ philosophy, where those who have completed the learning are encouraged to promulgate their knowledge throughout the emergency response community.

David Jardine-Smith comments: “The developing world is sadly where some of the largest maritime disasters still occur. Many of these countries are beset with problems and must prioritise. We accept that but we are suggesting that maritime rescue response thinking and planning is still extremely worthwhile. We’re not providing solutions – these can only be developed locally – but we’re using our members’ accumulated experience and knowledge to offer the very best advice.”

A range of responses are available, and should be considered by SAR authorities. As passenger ships have improved in design and safety, for example, they become more capable of surviving a major fire or hull damage. Emergency responses should be reviewed and updated accordingly. SAR professionals now plan for scenarios where emergency medical professionals or additional fire-fighting crews might be flown into a situation and the vessel towed to safety, instead of attempting a mass evacuation at sea.

As the popularity of ‘adventure cruising’ grows, ship operators in high latitudes, are effectively ‘buddy cruising’. This means that another vessel is only a few hours away, and able to provide support in the event of an emergency.

Similarly, in an offshore energy industry emergency there is likely to be a significant response from the industry itself. In such situations the SAR authorities will be working alongside the industry response and should therefore plan with the industry too.

Looking ahead, David Jardine-Smith, says that the development of unmanned units is of interest. Remotely-piloted air and surface craft can be very useful in search operations, and have the potential to airdrop survival equipment, whether that be shelters or liferafts, communications equipment, thermal protection or food and water.

But, he concludes, although significant progress has been made, more still needs to be done to emphasise the importance of maritime mass rescue operation planning, to fill global gaps in search and rescue response capability.

The International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) is the only organization to represent and unite search and rescue (SAR) providers around the world, sharing best practice and knowledge and working together to achieve the common humanitarian aim: ‘Preventing loss of life in the world's waters’.

Founded (as the International Lifeboat Federation) in 1924, the IMRF was granted non-governmental consultative status with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 1985. Initially the IMRF’s activities centred on an international lifeboat conference held every four years, but in 2003 the organisation agreed to become more formal and outward facing in its activities. It was registered as an independent charity and in 2007 was renamed the International Maritime Rescue Federation, reflecting the broader scope of modern maritime SAR activity.

Today, the IMRF’s core functions are; encouraging the development of SAR services worldwide; facilitating the exchange of technology, ideas and experience between maritime SAR organisations worldwide; and representing maritime SAR organisations at the international level. The IMRF’s independence and objectivity ensures that the saving of lives at sea remains a humanitarian task transcending national and political boundaries.