R.E.S.C.U.E. – What I Learned at the International Search and Rescue Conference

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Last week I was fortunate enough to attend and present at the 5th Annual International Search and Rescue Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The conference provided an opportunity for search and rescue agencies, government officials and equipment manufacturers to learn about the past, present and future of the seaiSAR Conference Award 2016rch and rescue industry.  There were the now-common presentations on the emergence of drones in rescue operations, the increase of AIS (Automatic Identification Systems) as a search and rescue alternative and the improvements in technology (such as the MEOSAR next-gen satellite-based search and rescue system) that are shaping the future.  There was even a moving presentation by Blaine Gibson whose mission to bring closure to the Malaysia Airlines MH370 tragedy resulted in him finding several pieces of the missing airplane.  But, for me, it was the conference’s unique “colloquium” session that put things into perspective by enabling attendees to share, in small group settings, their experiences and insights in areas such as search and rescue technology, systems and processes.

As I was trying to summarize the outcomes of the conference and the “colloquium” specifically, I realized that there were 3 major areas of focus that, when blended with a little creativity, result in a subject-appropriate acronym – R.E.S.C.U.E.

Resource

Exchange;
Systems
Convergence;
User
Education

Let’s look at these in a little more detail:

Resource Exchange

The key to a successful search and rescue operation is the accurate exchange of “resources” whether people, data or other pertinent information.  This is especially important when multiple agencies and different countries become involved.  The conference gave several examples of incidents and emergencies that were successes (or failures) because of proper (or inadequate) resource exchange.  The search and rescue systems of the future need to ensure that consistent information, common terminology and standard processes are used by all parties involved.  This will streamline rescue operations and save more lives.  But how will this be implemented especially on a global scale?  The International Maritime Rescue Federation is helping today by offering mass rescue workshops worldwide, many countries within a rescue region are meeting regularly to share best practices, and there was even talk about a common search and rescue “funding pool” that can be used for common competency-based training and education. Communication is the backbone of any search and rescue operation.

Systems Convergence

One of the primary reasons for the lack of proper resource exchange today is because of the fragmented systems used by different countries and various government bodies and authorities.  System interoperability is pretty non-existent today when it comes to search and rescue. It’s quite common, for example, that Country A and Country B have incompatible systems due to language requirements, budgets and other country-specific factors.  Yet even within a country, the various internal agencies, ministries and armed forces often have different systems due to their specific requirements.  Search and rescue systems such as those used in Mission Control Centers and Rescue Coordination Centers require the tracking of vessels, positioning on maps and the real-time monitoring of situations.  The Maritime Domain Awareness systems (including coastal surveillance, fleet management and maritime security systems) used in many countries require these exact same tasks. Today, these systems are often budgeted separately, managed separately and operated separately. Why not look at making these two systems into one?  The same can be true for radio communications systems, other monitoring platforms and even distress beacon products.  Combining, or converging, these currently fragmented, disparate systems can create process efficiencies that can help to protect assets, save costs and, ultimately, save more lives.  Technology by itself cannot save lives, but it is a key enabler if used effectively.

User Education

We all hear stories of sailors adrift at sea, hikers lost in the mountains, pilots disappearing off radar.  Many times these people rely on technologies such as mobile phones that simply do not work when venturing into remote or high-risk environments.  During my presentation, I asked the audience to raise their hands if they use distress beacons – PLBs when hiking, EPIRBs when boating or ELTs when flying.  Only a small number of people raised their hands.  If this audience, which was filled with search and rescue personnel, do not use these “preventative” search and rescue devices, why would the average person do the same?  There needs to be push with government officials and industry bodies to increase the public’s awareness and education of these devices and, ultimately, to make them mandated.  We have real-life examples of how mandatory bicycle and motorcycle helmets, life jackets and seat belts have helped to save lives.  I am confident that mandating the use of emergency distress beacons will result in the same life-saving benefits.  Remember these words when it comes to search and rescue: There is no rescue if you cannot be found in the first place.

I wanted to congratulate the conference organizers for a highly educational, informative and inspiring conference, and I am sure we all look forward to next year’s event.  The future of search and rescue is bright as long as we continue to share our ideas, implement standard best practices and integrate emerging technologies.  Then we will all see our common mission become a reality – to save more lives.