Search and rescue (SAR) authorities and organisations in developing nations are under resourced and overwhelmed because of the size of the rivers, lakes and coastlines they have to monitor.
This is one of the main conclusions from a report on ferry accidents commissioned by the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) – the UK based charity – presented at the World Maritime Rescue Congress (WMRC) in Bremerhaven yesterday and coinciding with the ferry disaster on the Yangtze River in China, one of the countries featured in the study.
The report, which examined 160 ferry accidents in 42 countries – from Australia and Bangladesh to Vietnam and Zambia – also found that ferry incidents in the European Union continued to occur at roughly the same rate in the past two decades but fatalities had markedly declined, largely due to better responses.
However, the same trend could not be seen in developing nations, where responses were the same as 15 years ago. At the time of the report being written, Myanmar has recorded their worst recorded ferry disaster in the past 15 years with more than 63 people losing their lives and volunteers leading rescue efforts with no mention of an official, organised SAR response.
The report, entitled ‘Ferry Accidents – The Challenge of Rescue’, has been produced for the IMRF by Kiersten Reid-Sander, an intern from the University of Southern Denmark.
She said “I hope the subsequent discussions of these research results will be of great benefit to all parties involved and will encourage SAR organisations that have not yet been involved with this project to offer their ideas, adding to the body of knowledge around global ferry fatalities.”
Bruce Reid, CEO of the IMRF added: “This is a comprehensive study that draws some disturbing conclusions about the capability of developing nations, in particular, to manage ferry accidents. We hope that by bringing the research to the attention of the appropriate Governments and agencies, action will be taken to reduce unnecessary loss of life.”
Reid-Sander, who produced the study to complement the findings of the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association (WFSA) report, ‘Ferry Fatalities: Statistics and Causation of Major Accidents 2000-2014’, which identified 160 ferry accidents, with more than 18000 fatalities, in that period, and asked a series of questions in relation to these accidents.
These included how SAR services became aware of the incident, how long responses took, how many people were saved, the resources available for the SAR effort, who co-ordinated it, the kind of challenges they faced and what other assistance was provided by other agencies.
She also checked whether the ferry had an evacuation plan in place and if so, how effectively it was carried out; whether anything positive came out of the rescue in terms of innovation and ideas and whether an official report or timeline of events were available.
It wasn’t possible to answer these questions for all 160 accidents and out of them all only 17 official reports were found of which 10 were in English. The number of passengers on board the ferries involved in accidents covered, ranged from 14 people on the Merinda in Australia in March, 2007 to 3586 passengers on board the MV Spice Islander 1 in 2011.
It was apparent from the research that ferry capacity is increasing and when a mass rescue is necessary, resources are not necessarily available, with the number of victims often overwhelming rescuers. Inaccurate records of the number of passengers and crew on board ferries is a common challenge faced by rescuers in developed and developing nations.
Also, a lack of basic lifesaving and safety equipment on board ferries continues to cost lives even though, since 1914, the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) has specified appropriate standards for life saving equipment, ship construction and survivability as well as navigation equipment and practices and communications.
It was very clear that SAR resources are stretched. For 70 of the accidents reported by the WFSA other vessels or fishermen were first on the scene to rescue victims. Official rescuers, who may have had some SAR training, are mentioned for only 40 out of 159 accidents identified by the WFSA – for example, local police, fire service, navy, coast guard and so on. In 23 cases there were no rescuers so those who survived, were the ones who swam ashore.
Lack of communication in many countries means authorities do not become aware of an accident before it is too late. Ferry accidents in developing countries often happen in remote areas where difficult terrain and vast distances can debilitate the rescue response to an emergency.
Beyond constructive critical analysis, the report does cite two examples of initiatives that appear to be making a difference. The first has been introduced in Vietnam in response to the necessity of ferry travel combined with a vast river network and limited official SAR resources.
The “Safety First” ferry stations manned by volunteers with first aid training and river rescue skills have been welcomed by local communities with passengers no longer fearing for their safety when crossing the river on their way home. A similar initiative has reportedly been in place for many years in Nigeria where families are in charge of rivers, leading search and rescue operations.
The second has emerged in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The United Nations (UN) unmanned aerial vehicle was able to spot a ferry sinking and then remain at the scene, searching for the survivors and providing situational awareness. This helped the subsequent lifesaving operation that was launched by providing real time imagery to support reaction to incidents.
The principal lessons from the report are that developing nations would do well to improve response to ferry incidents and, as a consequence, all maritime casualties by increasing communications capability in the event of a disaster, by employing, where possible, newer technology; by improving training and exercises by Government agencies and voluntary organisations and collaborating on SAR with neighbouring nations as well as the international community.