The Finnish Border Guard arranged an emergency towing exercise together with the Swedish Coast Guard during Kvarken SARex, March 2017. Photo: Mikko Lehtimäki, Finnish Border Guard
Close practical cooperation between various stakeholders is required in order to improve Arctic search and rescue (SAR) capabilities. The Finnish Border Guard’s survey maps the key challenges of Arctic SAR and compiles recommendations for enhancing international cooperation.
The Arctic maritime areas accommodate various industries and stakeholders. Increasing operations in the region require more competence and capabilities from the authorities to safeguard people and the fragile Arctic environment. Experience is very important, especially with maritime operations and navigation in the winter”, reminds the OPV Turva’s 1.st mate, Lieutenant Senior Grade, Ville Puustinen
The typical Arctic weather and ice conditions, also in the Baltic Sea, pose challenges both for vessel safety and training of the crew. Puustinen notes that, as the ice steers the vessel movement during wintertime, profound knowledge of the ice conditions is important and operating in ice requires a lot of experience and training.
Finland has a long history with winter navigation promoting internationally recognized best practices. However, the distances in the Baltic Sea cannot quite compare to the vast Arctic Ocean coastline. Maritime SAR advisor Petteri Leppänen also notes that experience in operating in multiyear ice cannot be acquired from the usual Baltic Sea operations.
Explorers have been sailing in the Arctic Ocean since the 1800s. However, there is little experience with mass rescue operations in the Arctic region. In most cases, the crew on board big cruise ships and cargo vessels are also not familiar with cold and extreme Arctic conditions. Being engaged in Arctic maritime safety projects, the Finnish Border Guard wanted to consult SAR experts from the eight Arctic countries in order to find out what are the key challenges for Arctic search and rescue and how experience in Arctic operations could developed.
Challenging operational environment
The Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF) fosters a lot of Arctic safety related knowledge, which the Finnish Border Guard wanted capture in a written format and thus decided to carry out a survey. The Arctic search and rescue capabilities survey is part of the Finnish Border Guard’s Arctic Maritime Safety Cooperation (SARC) project, and conducted in cooperation with the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. The survey recommends initiatives for coast guard cooperation with respect to common issues that the ACGF can address in the future and during the Finnish chairmanship of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum.
The overarching objective of the survey is to examine common challenges of Arctic maritime and aeronautical search and rescue in order to compile recommendations for developing practical cooperation on Arctic SAR training, information sharing, common situational awareness, stakeholder cooperation, and technological development. The primary data used in the survey is based on a questionnaire, which was sent to the SAR authorities of the Arctic countries, as well as findings from a workshop held at the Arctic Coast Guard Forum expert meeting in March 2017 in Boston, USA. Secondary data was gathered from existing relevant research projects such as the SARiNOR and MARPART projects, exercise reports, articles and SAR related conferences such as Maritime SAR 2017 and ICESAR 2017.
According to the responses received to the questionnaire, the key risk factors for vessel safety in the Arctic region are collisions with ice, being stranded by ice, groundings or other mishaps, a fire on board a vessel, and oil spills. Few also identified a collision with other vessels and icing as important risk factors. When examining the main risk factors associated with vessel safety in the Arctic, one should consider that the risks vary according to the types and levels of activity in different areas of the Arctic. It is also important to recognize that the operative environment varies greatly in different areas of the region due to ice and weather conditions and varying seasonal conditions.
The key challenges for Arctic search and rescue identified in the survey include long distances, severe weather, ice and cold conditions, a poor communications network, lack of infrastructure, and lack of SAR assets in the North. In addition, the capacity to host patients and provide situational awareness, as well as unsuitable evacuation and survival equipment pose major challenges for maritime safety and SAR in the Arctic.
Arctic SAR authorities have also recognized a need to further develop advanced information sharing between coast guards, emergency authorities, and other stakeholders involved in SAR operations. In addition, joint training and systematic sharing of lessons learned, as well as technological innovation in communications networks and connections, navigation, survival and rescue equipment, and healthcare services are being called for in order to improve SAR capabilities in the region. With regard to communications and connections in the Arctic, there is a need for a proper satellite broadband, satellite automatic identification system (AIS), radio towers, and other communications infrastructure to support SAR operations.
Sharing information is the key to fluent cooperation
The survey recommends enhancing practical cooperation by encouraging information sharing between coast guards and private operators on sailing plans, emergency plans, SAR cooperation plans, AIS and other vessel information. Authorities should also keep each other informed on the new developments of relevant infrastructure and equipment, as well as liaise closely with academia, private operators, local medical authorities, voluntary organizations, and other local stakeholders and recognize their key roles and responsibilities.
Regarding training and exercises, the survey recommends that coast guards and SAR authorities develop joint courses specific to Arctic conditions, including an on-scene coordinator course and an arctic operations course involving junior officers and senior leaders with firsthand experience. New technology and innovations could also be tested and evaluated during exercises. The survey emphasizes the importance of systematic sharing of reports and lessons learned from Arctic SAR exercises between SAR authorities and coast guards. The ACGF experts noted that the forum could develop a database or other system for sharing exercise reports and schedules. Furthermore, the ACGF could establish a working group that examines new technological innovations alongside companies and R&D centers, enabling various SAR experts to take part in product development.
Need for further research
According to the survey results, further research should be encouraged regarding new possibilities for Arctic SAR training and education, as well as on new technological solutions. Due to the limited time that SAR personnel have to travel between countries and scarce financial resources, further studies could be conducted on possibilities for e-learning. Such courses could for example focus on the roles of search and rescue mission coordinator (SMC), on-scene coordinator (OSC), and aircraft coordinator (ACO) in Arctic contexts. Arctic maritime search planning and Arctic joint operations are also relevant topics for common education work.
Further studies or research could also be done on possible concepts and tools for exercise evaluation, through which lessons learned and recommendations for future development could be systematically shared in a standardized form. These research exercises could contribute to the development of an educational program that facilitates sharing of theoretical and practical competencies between the SAR personnel of Arctic countries.
The results and recommendation from the Arctic Search and Rescue Capabilities survey will be utilized during the SARC project and the Finnish chairmanship of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. The Finnish Border Guard also hopes that the survey and its recommendations will provide reference to future projects and international cooperation initiatives.
The article was originally published in the Finnish Border Guard magazine Rajamme Vartijat issue 3 / 2017.