On ships, an emergency can occur at any time when at sea. Though as seafarers we’re all trained for emergency situations with regular drills, with limited resources, shore assistance may be needed (depending on the severity of the situation) for rescuing (medevac) or evacuating ship personnel(s) following a medical emergency.
Below are some common methods for personnel evacuation or medevac from a ship at sea:
1. Hi-Line Technique – Hi-Line means a Hi-Line/Heaving in Line.
It is used for helicopter rescue operations when it is not possible to lower helicopter for medevac, crew member onboard mainly because of weather conditions. In such situations, a Hi-Line is lowered to reduce swing of the hoisting line.
Deck party must be briefed in advance regarding the correct handling of hi-line. Major precautions – deck party must be suitably attired, wearing gloves and lifejackets along with correct personal protective equipment (PPE).
Hi-Line must not be made fast to the vessel and must be coiled into a bucket or similar arrangement. Also, the crew must not get themselves entangled with the line.
A wire/earthing lead/hook will be connected for discharging the static; this must be allowed to touch the deck. Hi-Line must be held firmly, this will minimize swing. At all times medevac instructions from the helicopter must be followed.
Emergency equipment must be kept ready on site and all loose gear on deck well secured or removed from location to avoid accidents from helicopter downdraft.
During night time, the deck must be suitably and sufficiently lit, ensuring that there is no glare, which can affect pilot’s vision. Flag and pennants must be displayed, to give helicopter pilot an indication of the wind direction.
2. Helicopter winching
When weather permits, this is the most preferred method for medevac because minimum assistance is needed from ships’ crew. As the helicopter staff is in full control of operations, the process requires hardly any space and can be undertaken on all ship types.
For this, a winch-man is lowered onto the ship for taking care of on-site coordination and evacuation. Evacuation will generally be by means of a strop or rescue basket.
Related Read: What is Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET)?
As in all helicopter operations for medevac at sea, pilot’s instructions must be followed at all times. Depending on the level of skills or experience some pilots will not mind vessel changing course and speed as this may be needed if the operation is taking place in an area of heavy surface traffic. However, it is always better to inform of such manoeuvre in advance. Also, regular VHF broadcasts must be made to keep other traffic in vicinity up to date.
Conventionally, a pilot will be sitting on the right-hand seat so the helicopter will approach from port quarter of the vessel.
Nowadays, because of convenience and time saving, this winching method is being increasingly used for pilot/deep sea pilot boarding in some ports.
3. Rendezvous at Sea
A rendezvous is planned at sea when there is a ship with better medical facilities in the vicinity or further transportation is to be done on another ship.
In case of rendezvous with a naval vessel, more often then not, our own vessel will have to steer at an instructed course at the best available speed, while the naval ship will work out intercept course and speed for the meeting as soon as possible.
Once both vessels are in proximity, transfer of personnel will have to be done by ships’ lifeboat.
For transfer of personnel, it would be best to use lee side accommodation ladder. This will minimize discomfort, which may be experienced if lifeboat is launched with the casualty inside.
If a naval vessel comes for assistance during medevac, they would prefer to use their own RHIB for the purpose. Sometimes it is preferable to examine the patients’ condition so that the most efficient means of evacuation can be worked out.
4. Fast Rescue boats
These are maintained for emergency evacuation by various ports in some coastal states and are available for transferring personnel to shore facilities when in coastal waters or when the vessel is within their area of operation.
Information regarding availability can be checked with local rescue coordination centers.
Coordination for medevac and transfer to shore ambulance is generally taken care by local harbour authorities.
Related Read: 3 Important Man Overboard Recovery Methods Used At Sea
5. Helicopter Landing
This MEDEVAC method is not discussed in detail as it is possible on only a few commercial ship types (generally large oil tankers and gearless bulk carriers) and is therefore not commonly used. ICS guide to helicopter ship operations and IAMSAR Volume III provide excellent information on this subject.
Some points to bear in mind:
- When evaluating a patient, at the very least, passport and/or other identity documents accompanied by available medical history, present condition and treatment given so far must also be sent along
- Though time is of utmost importance, a risk assessment must be done prior undertaking MEDEVAC, this will ensure smooth operations and safety of all parties involved
- Prior to operations, a suitable checklist need to be used to avoid oversight or omission as these are not routine operations, most of the companies have such checklist in their SMS otherwise it can be obtained from MGN 325 or above-mentioned publications.
- Communication with the helicopter must be such that both parties can understand clearly during MEDEVAC operation. In some countries in case of language difficulties, local SAR authorities will relay the message to and fro, same will be the case with some international naval ships
- Onboard communication can be hampered due to noise from helicopter engine/rotors and this needs to be taken into account when planning operations.
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, seafarers are all trained and practice regularly during drills onboard. These drills must also include helicopter-ship operations to improve crew knowledge and response.
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