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German 44.20 m Sea Rescue Cruiser - Courtesy of DGzRS/ Bremen (Germany)
German 44.20 m Sea Rescue Cruiser - Courtesy of DGzRS/ Bremen (Germany)

SOLAS Convention: Chapter V - Safety of Navigation

Regulation 7.1 states: "Each Contracting Government undertakes to ensure that any necessary arrangements are made for distress communications and coordination in their area of responsibility and for the rescue of persons in distress at sea around its coasts. These arrangements shall include the establishment, operation and maintenance of such search and rescue facilities as are deemed practicable and necessary, having regard to the density of the seagoing traffic and the navigational dangers, and shall, so far as possible, provide adequate means of locating and rescuing such persons."

Although the obligation of ships to assist vessels in distress was enshrined both in tradition and in international treaties (such as SOLAS), there was, until the adoption of International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) in 1979, no international system covering search and rescue operations. In some areas there was a well-established organization able to provide assistance promptly and efficiently, in others there was nothing at all.

Coordination and control of search and rescue operations was organized by each individual country in accordance with its own requirements and as dictated by its own resources. As a result, national organizational plans were developed along different lines. The dissimilarity of such plans and lack of agreed and standardized procedures on a worldwide basis could give rise to difficulties, particularly at the initial stages of alert. In some cases, this could result in an uneconomical use of search and rescue facilities or in unnecessary duplication of effort.

SAR Convention

In l979, a conference convened by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in Hamburg adopted the SAR Convention (it entered into force in l985). The aim was to develop an international SAR plan, so that, no matter where an accident occurs, the rescue of persons in distress at sea will be coordinated by a SAR organization and, when necessary, by co-operation between neighbouring SAR organizations.

The SAR Convention was amended in 1998 and 2004. The 1998 Amendments were made in order to clarify the responsibilities of Governments and put greater emphasis on the regional approach and co-ordination between maritime and aeronautical SAR operations. The 2004 amendments are related to the co-operation between States on the delivery of persons rescued at sea to a place of safety.

Because the Convention imposes considerable obligations on Parties - such as setting up the shore installations required - the Convention has not been ratified by as many countries as some other treaties. By the end of September 2006, for example, the SAR Convention had been ratified by 88 countries, whose combined merchant fleets represented approximately 52% of world tonnage. Equally important, many of the world's coastal States had not accepted the Convention and the obligations it imposes.

As a result, the development of SAR plans in the 13 areas has been relatively slow and by 1995 - ten years after the Convention entered into force - provisional SAR plans had only been drawn up for nine regions.

Three lines of defense

Effective approaches to safety at sea everywhere in the world and at all levels, rely on three lines of defense:

  1. Prevention (the most reliable and cost-effective component): Suitable equipment, training, experience, information and judgement to avoid getting into trouble in the first place.
  2. Survival and self-rescue: The equipment, training and attitudes necessary to survive and effect self-rescue when things start to go wrong.
  3. Search and Rescue (the most costly and least reliable of the three levels). Systems of alert, search, and rescue which are called upon when the first two lines of defence have failed.
Diagram illustrates a search and rescue operation using an emergency beacon
Diagram illustrates a search and rescue operation using an emergency beacon
Courtesy of NOAA/SARSAT

Irrespective of the methods employed, SAR is a costly operation. In many developing countries it may seem a daunting task, especially where the sea area is very large in proportion to the land. Under such circumstances search by air is most effective, but the costs involved can be prohibitively high and constitute a heavy unforeseen financial burden on government departments that can ill afford it.

IMO search and rescue areas

Following the adoption of the SAR Convention, the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), IMO's senior technical body, divided the world's oceans into 13 search and rescue areas, in each of which the countries concerned have delimited search and rescue regions for which they are responsible. Provisional search and rescue plans for all of these areas were completed in 1998.


In 1998, concurrently with the revision of the SAR Convention, the IMO and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) jointly developed the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue (IAMSAR) Manual, published in three volumes covering Organization and Management; Mission Co-ordination; and Mobile Facilities. The IAMSAR Manual revises and replaces the IMO Merchant Ship Search and Rescue Manual (MERSAR), first published in 1971, and the IMO Search and Rescue Manual (IMOSAR), first published in 1978.

This manual was aligned as closely as possible with ICAO Search and Rescue Manual to ensure a common policy and to facilitate consultation of the two manuals for administrative or operational reasons.

Sea-safety programmes

In the developed countries, the majority of sea-safety programmes and equipment have evolved in working environments where sea conditions are harsh and equipment is relatively cheap compared with the expensive manpower. Thus, these approaches are designed around robust equipment operating under very harsh conditions, and are not always the most appropriate for the developing countries. In tropical artisanal fisheries, labour is cheap, but equipment is relatively speaking extremely expensive. Sea conditions, on the average, are not so extreme. Sea safety programmes in developing countries could make a virtue of necessity, by evolving approaches which rely more on their inexpensive manpower, making the best possible use of modest equipment that has to withstand only relatively moderate sea conditions.1

It is important to coordinate the efforts of existing institutions, NGOs, the families of fishermen, and others that may take part in organizing and carrying out SAR and other safety-at sea activities, by forming local safety-at-sea organizations which can also convene on a national basis. Such groups help provide the continuity which is so important for maintaining safety-at-sea activities such as awareness campaigns, safety courses, fund-raising and lobbying, as well as the important flocks of volunteers to take part in SAR when the need arises.

1 Johnson,J: Intermediate technology MCS and appropriate technology for artisanal sea safety: a solution in common. FAO. February 2000.

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