Conducting a Search: Marine SAR

M.V. Kruger, the Cambridge Bay Coast Guard Auxiliary’s new rescue boat secured under the Ocean Protection Plan’s Indigenous Community Boat Volunteer Pilot Program. Photo from John Thompson, “Ready to Rescue,” Nunatsiaq News, 20 September 2019.

The following are some general best practices for conducting marine searches. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it offers some of the most common approaches and considerations shared by the Kitikmeot’s community responders. Members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary units in the Kitikmeot suggest reading the CCGA Search and Rescue Crew Manual for a very detailed explanation for how they approach searches. The following represent best practices that various Auxiliary members highlighted as particularly important.

Do not underestimate the role that Auxiliary members can play as “SAR detectives.” In the North, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre will not have the local knowledge or resources required to investigate a SAR case thoroughly. Auxiliary units can play an important role gathering information – everything from the condition of a missing vessel, to the skill of its crew, to where they may have gone – and relaying it to the JRCC. In the case of an overdue boat, for instance, Auxiliary members can call the overdue person/persons family, friends, or other witnesses to gather more information, including their travel plans and preferred hunting/fishing areas. Their familiarity with local conditions, marine spaces, and the marine activities of their fellow community members, make Auxiliary members uniquely suited to be SAR detectives

Before launching a SAR mission, it is essential to check the condition of the Auxiliary vessel and equipment (see checklist), ensure that every crewmember has their PFD and additional personal protective equipment, and closely monitor environmental conditions (e.g. weather, ice).

CCGA Search and Rescue Crew Manual vessel checklist.

Once the crew is assembled for a search mission, the coxswain/captain must deliver a clear briefing of the incident, including number of persons involved, type of incident, type of vessel, location, and any other pertinent information. Everyone must be on the same page. Auxiliary members highlighted the need to take a moment to share knowledge about the incident’s location/search area – given the lack of charting in the Kitikmeot, this knowledge-sharing is key to safe operations.

Clear and continuous communication between the coxswain/captain and crew is vital throughout a search operation. Likewise, Auxiliary units must be able to communicate effectively with JRCC Trenton and other responding SAR assets, including vessels of opportunity. As a result, it is essential that unit members have their Radio Operator Certificate (ROC) training.

Crewmembers must be familiar with basic marine SAR search patterns:Track Crawl, Expanding Square, Creeping Line, Parallel, and Sector Search.

Spotters play perhaps the most important role during a search. Multiple spotters greatly increase the chance of spotting a search object. Ideally, a rotation should be setup allowing spotters the chance to rest. Spotters need to be kept warm, comfortable, and focused (in good conditions, one spotter can generally maintain a high level of focus for up to two hours). According to the CCGA Search and Rescue Crew Manual: “A spotter must search the sector by starting a sweep near the vessel, working your way out in a series of parallel lines to the edge of the search sector. When the sweep has been completed, a five to ten second rest can be taken followed by another search of the sector. With the eyes focused straight ahead, the spotter should move his/her head to search the assigned area. Searching an area using eyes alone, without any head movement, can lead to an overexertion of the eye muscles, causing early fatigue.”

Auxiliary members highlight that throughout a search, crewmembers must take the time to stop their vessel and listen. Whistles and voices will carry past a person’s sighting distance.

Stop, Assess, Plan (SAP): This is all about awareness and developing a solid action plan upon arrival at a scene/incident. Auxiliary units must observe a scene carefully, taking note of all the details, and agree on the most effective plan before acting. Again, Auxiliary unit members emphasized the importance of all crewmembers being on the same page before taking action.

SAP = Identify all the hazards at a scene ➾ Receive input from all team members ➾ Formulate a solution that best fits the problem ➾ Communicate an action plan with the roles for each team member.

At the scene, Auxiliary unit leaders must be prepared to take on the role of On-Scene Coordinator, particular if multiple rescue boats are involved.

Excerpt from Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary National Guidelines (2016)


On-scene Coordinator (OSC)

In major SAR operations where several rescue units respond to a call, an On-Scene Coordinator (OSC) is normally appointed by the JRCC/MRSC. An On-Scene Coordinator is the commanding officer of a vessel or aircraft designated by JRCC/MRSC to coordinate SAR operations within a specified area. On-Scene Coordinator authority may be delegated to primary Coast Guard SAR vessels, DND aircraft, secondary Coast Guard vessels, CCGA Vessels or other government vessels that have suitable equipment and trained personnel for the expeditious conduct of SAR operations.

Where an OSC has been designated, the OSC shall be responsible for the following tasks to the extent they have not been performed by the responsible JRCC/MRSC:

  • Coordinate operations of all SAR maritime and air resources;
  • Receive the search action plan or rescue plan from the JRCC/MRSC or plan the search or rescue operation, if no plan is otherwise available;
  • Modify the search action or rescue plan as the situation on-scene dictates, keeping the JRCC/MRSC advised (done in consultation with the JRCC/MRSC when practicable);
  • Coordinate on-scene communications; 
  • Monitor the performance of other participating facilities
  • Ensure operations are conducted safely, paying particular attention to maintaining safe separations among all facilities, maritime and air;
  • Make periodic situation reports (SITREPs) to the JRCC/MRSC. SITREPs should include but not be limited to:
    • 1. weather and sea conditions; 2. the results of search to date; 3. any actions taken; and, 4. any future plans or recommendations.
  • Maintain a detailed record of the operation:
    • 1. on-scene arrival and departure times of SAR resources, other vessels and aircraft engaged in the operation; 2. areas searched; 3. track spacing used; 4. sightings and leads reported; 5. actions taken; and 6. results obtained.
  • Report the number and names of survivors to the JRCC/MRSC;
  • Advise the JRCC/MRSC to release resources no longer required;
  • Provide the JRCC/MRSC with the names and designations of SRUs with survivors onboard;
  • Report which survivors are in each SRU;
  • Request additional JRCC/MRSC assistance when necessary (for example, medical evacuation of the sick and injured).
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