Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Amanda Levasseur
When a mariner is found at sea it is no accident. In fact it is often the result of hours of deliberate search and rescue planning and continually nurtured partnerships across jurisdictions and borders. Search and rescue governance is an important element in the Pacific where vast distances and limited resources make saving lives all the more challenging.
The Pacific Search and Rescue Steering Committee
The committee is a collective of search and rescue agencies from five principle nations; Australia, Fiji, France, New Zealand and the United States. These nations hold responsibility for significant search and rescue regions of the Central and South Eastern Pacific. Each nation is committed to working with neighboring countries or territories within or near their areas of responsibility to build SAR response capability. Communally, the committee is working to build SAR capability and cooperation across the Pacific to work together seamlessly to save lives.
“By working to build capability at four levels, across governance, coordination, response and prevention, we can ensure that all Pacific Island Countries and Territories have a firm foundation for engaging in SAR response, as well as the necessary capability and capacity to do so,” said Mike Hill, manager, Rescue Coordination Center New Zealand and Safety Services, Maritime New Zealand. “At the core of all this work are relationships. As we build understanding and trust across the SAR agencies in the region, we will be better and able to learn from each other.”
A key mechanism for enhancing SAR capability and cooperation across the Pacific is the biennial search and rescue workshop. The workshop is hosted by one of the nations involved in the PACSAR Steering Committee and provides an opportunity for both aeronautical and maritime SAR authorities from all Pacific Island Countries and Territories to come together and share knowledge, ideas, expertise and build collaborative relationships.
“The principal nations in the region with support from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community have been working alongside each of the Pacific Island Countries and Territories over the past 12 years to collectively shape improvements to the region’s SAR system,” said Cmdr. Solomon Thompson, chief, Response Management Branch, Coast Guard 14th District. “These efforts have saved countless lives and provided an example of cooperation for other countries around the globe. We have many milestone achievements, but there is still work to be done to ready our response across the region.”
This year’s Seventh Pacific Regional Search and Rescue Workshop was held in Auckland, New Zealand, jointly hosted and organized by the Government of New Zealand with support of the International Maritime Organization and Pacific Community. The workshop was the largest attended event since the inception in 2006 with over 110 attendees representing 21 Pacific Island Countries and Territories and another 14 regional partners and observers including International Maritime Organization and International Maritime Rescue Federation.
“This regional workshop is very vital as it provides an opportunity for those who have responsibilities in Search and Rescue, to discuss their common issues and share some best practices on how to resolve them, and the IMO is proud to support this workshop and PACSAR’s vital work in the region” said IMO’s Head of the Latin America and Caribbean Section, Technical Cooperation Division, Carlos Salgado. “We discuss building up capacities and resources to improve abilities to comply with international rules and standards.”
The U.S. Coast Guard was involved in several facets of the workshop from presentations and governance discussion to demonstrations, and as it happens, an actual SAR case. Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, Coast Guard 14th District response and prevention management staffs and Coast Guard Sector Guam response staff participated in the week-long events.
“We are beginning to see the cumulative results of all the previous workshops and collaboration amongst the many countries,” said Rich Roberts, search and rescue specialist, Coast Guard 14th District, and current chair of the PACSAR Steering Committee. “This by far was our most successful workshop.”
We look to leverage the momentum from this year’s workshop as participants gained an understanding of how they can be the catalyst to improve their countries SAR response and leave a legacy of lives saved,” continued Roberts. “We will begin to work on the outcomes of this year’s workshop as we prepare and plan for our next workshop.”
The 14th Coast Guard District is scheduled to host the next workshop in Honolulu in 2019. The long-term goal of these regular workshops is to further the mission of the steering committee: to measurably improve the SAR capability of each of the Pacific Island Countries or Territories in line with international standards and the PACSAR measures of success by 2021. The workshops are not the only way this is being done. In 2016 Palau signed their own National Search and Rescue Plan and recently established a National Search and Rescue Committee as they develop a Mass Rescue Operations Plan. The workshop is a place to share these successes and continue the learning process on all sides by assessing strengths, risks, opportunities for partnerships and to learn from each other.
“The biennial Pacific Regional SAR Workshop is an excellent forum for improving SAR capability and capacity throughout the Pacific region,” said Dave Edwards, of the U.S. Coast Guard International SAR Engagement and Policy office. “Coast Guard’s 14th District staff demonstrated strong leadership as one of the five principal nations working together for the numerous island states and territories throughout Oceania. The coordinated effort of the principals creates support from the International Maritime Organization and the Pacific Community which enables the lesser developed states to attend the workshops and development of a strategic plan whose implementation has already shown results, especially in political will of all governments. By already planning for the next session in 2019, momentum will be sustained by all Pacific island states and territories as to show their continued improvement for SAR. We in CG-SAR look forward to supporting D14.”
Demonstration Becomes Reality
An HC-130 Hercules aircrew from U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point also deployed to New Zealand to participate in the SAR demonstration and represent the United States. And they were received warmly by their Kiwi counterparts.
“It’s been a long time since the Americans have managed to get to New Zealand, about 20 plus years,” said Flight Lt. Brett Mann, pilot, New Zealand Air Force 5 squadron. “With the doors being open to this kind of engagement, it means we have an actual opportunity to see how things have changed from 20 years ago and rebuild our partnerships, understand how we operate our aircrafts and pick up where we left off.”
The Pacific region faces a unique set of challenges when it comes to search and rescue. With small countries and dispersed island groups with diverse levels of economic growth and significant communication challenges, there is limited access to SAR assets and response coordination capabilities. Effective response in an already challenging field becomes even more difficult over the 31 million square miles of Pacific Ocean with dynamic weather. By working together with international partners, proficiency is established that can increase successes and lives saved.
The PACSAR demonstration took place in and over the water of Waitematā Harbour while the U.S. Coast Guard aircrew dropped a life raft from the back of their airplane to a simulated vessel in distress. The U.S. plane was a single moving piece in a collection of agencies demonstrating how multiple nations can work together during the event of a potential SAR case in shared Pacific waters efficiently and successfully. This exercise also provided an opportunity for participants who execute search and rescue in the field and conduct planning to share real-life experiences, techniques and methods.
“If we’re up there searching, and they’re up there searching, it could cross over an understanding of how we’re going to be searching together so we’re not stepping on each others’ toes and figure out the best way to do our job,” said Mann. “The Herc can fly a bit lower and slower than we can, so that’s going to help with the visual searches, while we fly faster and we use our sensors a lot more. What we picked up was good techniques for us to use for visual searches and we can pass on good techniques for sensor searches.”
Upon completion of the week-long conference and harbor demonstration, The Hercules crew prepared for their long flight home, back to Oahu, Hawaii. Prior to departure, the crew was notified of a Tongan vessel two days overdue. Tonga is in the Pacific region, relevant to the workshop just held and in the path of the Hercules’s flight home. Despite being eager to return home, the crew agreed to conduct search patterns off the coast of Tonga to search for the overdue vessel and the six men aboard.
Four hours into the flight the crew arrived in the area the Tongan vessel was believed to be. Though loss of daylight was a challenge, the crew began search patterns provided by Rescue Coordination Center New Zealand. Lt. Cmdr. Michael Koehler, pilot of the Hercules, wore night vision goggles while scanning the dark waters below. Other crewmembers were in the belly of the plane scanning the ocean using C-130 Airborne Sensor Palletized Electronic Reconnaissance.
In less than two hours, 80 miles off Tonga, Koehler saw something in the water. The crew zoomed in on the camera monitor. A 40-foot vessel was spotted with men on top of their superstructure waving their arms and white cloths.
The Tongan vessel lost power days prior and drifted off shore with no communication capabilities. The Hercules prepared for a gear drop, much like the one they had just demonstrated the day before during the SAR workshop when they dropped a life raft, except this time they were preparing to deliver a long-range deployable drop kit. The kit included food rations, water, a VHF radio to make contact with the vessel and a transponder to emit their location.
The deployable long-range drop kit is not standard across the Coast Guard. It is a combination of equipment customized and packaged together carried by Air Station Barbers Point’s Hercules crews for these exact situations. Best practices such as this are some of the things shared at workshops and professional exchanges such as this to improve response in a region known for its great distances and remote areas. The aircrew once again performed a successful drop and the Tongan crew received the kit. They confirmed they were indeed stranded and needed help. By using the included transponder to keep the vessel’s exact drifting location, Joint Rescue Coordination Center New Zealand personnel were able to pass the coordinates to a Tongan naval patrol boat launched the following morning. The six men were successfully located and brought home safely.
“I am proud of my crew and how well we represented the United States this past week,” said Koehler. “We were in New Zealand at the 2017 Pacific Search and Rescue Conference talking to delegates from Tonga about search and rescue capabilities and the next day we spotted a disabled vessel 80 miles off of Tonga’s shore using night vision goggles without the use of radar. The conference was designed to strengthen relationships and enhance search and rescue interoperability in the region to address rescue situations exactly like this; working together we are saving lives in the Pacific.”