Whatever the emergency at sea, in the UK, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) coordinates all the search and rescue (SAR) units and decides whether to launch a lifeboat, scramble a helicopter or call out a mud or cliff rescue team or other group. In the RoI, the SAR units are coordinated by the Irish Coast Guard.
If someone is in trouble at sea the MCA or Irish Coast Guard may receive a call by radio or by telephone (999 or 112 – the European and mobile phone emergency number).
Also, one of the modern distress beacons, which many boats and ships carry, can automatically send out a distress signal if it ends up in the water. The Coastguard then decides which SAR unit is needed to go to the incident, calls them out and manages the rescue.
Alerting the Crew
If an RNLI lifeboat is required, the MCA Operation’s Room (Humber Coastguard in our case) will contact the relevant station’s Lifeboat Operation's Manager (LOM), or one of their deputies (DLA) to request the launch of the lifeboat.
If permission is given to launch then the lifeboat crew will be alerted by radio pager. The RNLI currently uses a dedicated paging system that is operated by Arqiva.
To a crew member or shore helper, a pager is like any other bit of clothing that’s put on or carried with them everywhere, every day, and it’s even been likened to an umbilical cord. It’s always with them, day or night.
The pagers give off different tones to tell the crew which boat is required and they can also be set to vibrate with a flashing light. Short messages can be sent in less than 30 seconds, for example: ‘Launch request Coastguard / Launch ILB / Launch ALB / Launch both boats’.
Bikes, buggies and boats ? arriving at the station
When the pagers go off the lifeboat crew may be at home, out shopping, at work or even asleep, and when they hear the pager they stop what they?re doing and rush to the lifeboat station as quickly, but as safely, as possible. They may jump into their cars or even run down to the station but bikes, buggies and boats have all been used to get crew and shore helpers to the station. Although the mode of transport may be different for every crew member there?s one thing that?s always the same ? the butterflies and the adrenalin start pumping and the question that?s asked is: ?I wonder what the shout will be this time??
Getting kitted up
Once the Helmsman arrives he/she can then find out what the problem is and decide on the best course of action to take and which crew members to take. At stations with two or more lifeboats the LOM may decide to launch all boats.
The crew then get kitted up in their protective clothing. For Inshore Lifeboat (ILB) crew they wear woolly bears (thermal under suit), a full dry suit, lifejackets, gloves and a helmet.
Launching the lifeboat
Successful rescues are all about teams working together and this happens even before the lifeboat has been launched. The lifeboat crews and shore helpers all work together to make sure the lifeboat is launched safely.
As the crew are getting kitted up the launchers get ready to take the lifeboat out to sea. In the case of an inshore lifeboat, a driver is needed for the tractor, all-terrain vehicle (ATV) or land rover, which pulls the lifeboat, and sometimes a number of launchers are needed to help the crew get the lifeboat through the waves and surf.
The average time to launch an inshore lifeboat is seven minutes.
The initial contact with the Coastguard provides the crew with some details about the incident ? what the casualty is, where it is, how many people are involved, whether anyone has been injured and whether they are likely to need medical attention. All of this information is useful so the crew can plot a course to the casualty and start getting any equipment ready they may need ? first aid equipment, salvage pump if a boat is taking on water, or ropes to tow a boat.
Arriving on scene the crew lets the Coastguard know and then checks out the situation and assesses what they need to do and talks to the casualty if possible. What might seem like a straight forward rescue to the lifeboat crew can be a frightening experience for the people involved and so it?s important for the crew to provide a friendly face and to reassure them that they will do all they can to sort the situation out.
Equally for the lifeboat crew, as well as the people involved, it can be a tense and dramatic time and the Helmsman and crew have to make quick and effective decisions. Often a great deal of courage, determination, skill, leadership, agility and perseverance is required to carry out a successful rescue.
The rescue can sometimes take just a few minutes, or it can take several hours. However long it takes, the crews communicate with each other and the Coastguard, and work together towards a successful outcome.
Returning to station
After the rescue is over and the lifeboat has been brought back to the station it has to be washed down and cleaned inside. All the equipment is checked and any items replaced or restocked. The fuel tank is filled and the boat is left ready for the next launch ? which could be tomorrow or not for another few weeks. Whenever it happens, the lifeboats, the crew, shore helpers and everyone involved will be ready.
Depending on the type of casualty and where it is, the Coastguard and Maritime Agency can also decide to call on one of its own search and rescue (SAR) helicopters, ask for a Royal Navy or Royal Air Force SAR helicopter or call on a cliff rescue team or other group to work alongside the lifeboats. They all work together very closely and frequently take part in joint training exercises. Each has its own special part to play in sea rescues.
Making a hoax distress call, by phone, radio or any other means, is a criminal offence which carries a fine, jail sentence or both. It also puts the lives of rescuers at risk, as well as diverting resources away from other genuine casualties.
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