‘Would you like some external assistance Sir?’ poses a number of difficulties for the Master of a vessel at sea and the answer depends on a number of factors and priorities which must be considered in a very dynamic and challenging environment. The Master, whilst completely comfortable with their usual decision making process, will be under significant new pressures which may be unfamiliar to them and undermine their usual thought processes.
Firstly, and it should always be the highest priority, must be a decision around whether the external assistance can help in saving the lives of those on the vessel. ‘The safety of those involved in an emergency remains the chief priority at all times. If a ship remains habitable following an emergency, the SAR Authorities and others concerned should seek to provide support as an aid to containing the emergency and specifically to reduce the need for evacuation’MSC.1\Circ.1183. To assist in making this decision the Master has to know whether or not their current plan is working and is likely to be successful? Ultimately if the Master decides to abandon the vessel is there sufficient time to complete the evacuation of all passengers and crew or could external assistance provide the extra time needed by containing or slowing down the development of the emergency?
Second is what external assistance is available? MSC.1\Circ.1183 sets out a range of potential external assistance options that might be considered but there is no obligation on any SAR Authority to provide such services so where will they come from? The external assistance has to be able to ‘add value’ to the operational plan onboard the vessel for a range of emergencies that might be encountered but it also has to be commercially viable when inactive. The use of specialist knowledge and experience from personnel whose day job is dealing with the type of emergency encountered must be able to deliver a better resolution over and above that which the ship’s crew are trained to provide (which is in addition to maintaining their own job related competency). It should be able to build on the good work already undertaken by the ship’s crew so some synergy between STCW standards and the external assistance capability is essential. But the challenge will still remain of who will be paying for capabilities that are essentially mitigating risk and who owns that risk?
Thirdly, and undoubtedly a consideration for Owners and Insurers, is what will be the status of the assistance when it boards the vessel in terms of the payment for any services provided and possible involvement of commercial salvage rights? The external assistance, in my opinion, has to have a very clear role within the resolution of the incident. Within the UK Fire & Rescue Marine Response capability, for example, there is a defined window within which we will operate which is the gap between where the ship’s crew might become overwhelmed or exhausted (1-4 hours) and the time when a commercial Salvor might be engaged (24-48 hours). This window still supports the aim of saving lives and protecting the environment as the incident can still be escalating or posing a threat to either lives or the environment but also distinguishes what we do from the role of the commercial salvage sector with who we have no intention of competing, indeed where an incident develops to requiring a commercial Salvor to become engaged we would see ourselves as actively supporting the transition and handover.
Emergency responders, who routinely make decisions within dynamically changing scenarios and with high risk factors, can support the Master in maintaining their position as the ultimate decision maker on the vessel and also provide professional, independent advice to those coordinating any response onshore so perhaps the question should be ‘Why wouldn’t you accept some external assistance Sir?’