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New report: Search and rescue can be improved on many levels

12 October 2023

The knowledge of mass rescue of migrants in maritime rescue societies and other voluntary organizations is good, while it is limited in the merchant fleet. According to a new pre-study from VTI search and rescue can be improved in both sectors.

On June 14, a trawler with up to 750 migrants on board sank in the Mediterranean. Only about a hundred could be saved. Although this was the deadliest accident in the Mediterranean so far this year, it is far from the only one. The Mediterranean has become the world's deadliest sea crossing, with thousands of migrants drowning every year trying to cross to Europe in the hope of a better life. In the midst of this humanitarian crisis, merchant mariners as well as volunteers on board ships operated by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are participating in search and rescue operations. Ships from Swedish shipping companies that pass through these areas have, for example, been asked to assist migrant boats in distress and have done so.

So how well do the search and rescue (SAR) work? What can be improved? Is the training good enough? In a pre-study project, the VTI researchers Birgit Pauksztat and Gesa Praetorius interviewed 28 experts from educational institutions, shipping companies, authorities and NGOs involved in SAR for migrants in the Mediterranean.

“Within NGOs, volunteers are trained specifically to rescue people from the water and take care of them on board, while mass rescue of people in distress from the water is hardly trained at all in the commercial fleet. The focus is rather on the own ship and certain situations, for example man over board”, says Gesa Praetorius.

Therefore, much can be improved in the area of the merchant fleet. But the time to practice and train is usually limited. The study therefore raises the question of whether one can be better prepared by improving cooperation, coordination and communication in everyday work on board and whether this can also give rise to identifying training needs that can improve resilience and preparedness for emergency situations.

“You need to think about whether you really capture everything. Is the leadership system good enough? Communication across departmental boundaries? Can we get better at flexible and adaptive action? Then, of course, you have to think about how to rescue people from the water and take care of them on board. The Estonia disaster happened many years ago, but as one of our respondents said, it is not certain that such a rescue effort would be more successful today.”

On the NGO side, there are other problems to tackle. First, the training is very compact. Since the personell consists of volunteers, who may be making an effort on their vacation, it is usually intensive training a week or so before the SAR operation that applies.

“Those who volunteer are also very enthusiastic, so maybe they could practice certain things beforehand at their own pace, for example through e-learning”, says Birgit Pauksztat.

There is a big difference between rescuing a family on a sailing boat in Sweden and evacuating hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean from a large boat in poor condition.

“Much is about controlling the situation and keeping everyone calm. It is not easy when everyone is desperate to get to safety, especially if there are communication problems. People easily get panicked.”

Can you be sufficiently prepared to handle such a situation if you have not experienced it before?

“There is a very big difference between training and experiencing it in reality. As one volunteer said: It's one thing to train with a dummy, quite another to lift a real baby from a migrant boat to a rescue boat. The first time can be really overwhelming. Therefore, it is important that you get some form of mental preparation or training. It is also important that you can talk about it with others on board and that you have the opportunity to receive support from trained psychologists where needed. According to the NGOs, the rescue operations are otherwise usually quite similar and it becomes routine rather quickly”, says Birgit Pauksztat.

“You must also be able to make quick and difficult decisions”, says Gesa Praetorius. “You may not be able to save everyone. Someone is needed who can make these decisions – a person in charge who can communicate this. Leadership and coordination are very important. Here, I think shipping and the commercial fleet have a lot to learn.”

The pre-study Preparedness and resilience in high-risk operations: An exploratory study of training needs for search and rescue (SAR) is authored by Birgit Pauksztat and Gesa Praetorius at VTI.

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