Mass Rescue Operations

Passengers on the Akademik Ioffe after it ran aground near Kugaaruk in 2018. Photo from Ed Struzik, “In the Melting Arctic, a Harrowing Account from a Stranded Ship,” Environment 360.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) defines an MRO as “an immediate response to a large number of persons in distress so that the capabilities normally available for search and rescue authorities are inadequate.” Responses to such rescues generally demand “immediate, well-planned and closely coordinated large-scale actions and use of resources from multiple organizations.” The research on MROs highlights the need to involve local stakeholders and community organizations in the planning, exercise, and execution of MROs given their expert knowledge of local geography, conditions, and capabilities.

Roundtable participants noted that the Kitikmeot has been the scene of several marine incidents that could have escalated into Mass Rescue Operations: Hanseatic (1996); Clipper Adventurer (2010); Nanny (2010); Akademik Ioffe (2018). In each incident, good conditions prevailed. Had the weather or sea conditions been worse, each could have demanded a complicated mass rescue operation. These incidents have left many community responders asking “what if?” What if the weather had been worse, increasing the danger to passengers and crew? What if one of these vessels had been sinking and required immediate assistance from the community? What if there had been medical emergencies on board? What if a community had to house, feed, and provide medical aid to passengers and crew for an extended period of time?

Kitikmeot Roundtable on SAR participants agreed that if a Mass Rescue Operation ever occurred close to their communities they would be the first responders. They would try their best to help in whatever way possible – from the initial notification of an incident to any possible environmental clean-up required. One community responder noted that, “If a major emergency happened…people would come from the community to help. That’s just the way it is up here. I guess it would be helpful to know how we could help. So, if we go out as Rangers, what could we do? Maybe not a lot, but something. People are going to go out anyway, can’t we get some direction on how we might be able to help the most?”

The culminating activity of the Kitikmeot Roundtable on SAR involved a tabletop exercise exploring community-level responses to a Mass Rescue Operation (MRO). The exercise simulated a cruise ship running aground off Unahitak Island near Cambridge Bay, although participants from other communities were also asked to apply the scenario to their own local situations.

The major lesson learned from the exercise was the sophistication of community-level understandings of and plans for MROs and reinforced the value of community-level perspectives in planning, preparing for, and executing an MRO. It also reinforced the need for the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre/Canadian Armed Forces/Coast Guard to view community groups as force multipliers. Roundtable participants highlighted a series of potential responses for Coast Guard Auxiliary units, community SAR teams, and/or Ranger patrols during an MRO, including:

  • put eyes on the situation;
  • provide updates to the JRCC;
  • on-scene coordinator;
  • provide intel on where passengers could be evacuated to on the land;
  • assist with the deployment of the Major Air Disaster (MAJAID) kit (see insert below);
  • shepherd lifeboats or zodiacs to safe havens or the community;
  • help in offloading and tracking passengers;
  • search for missing passengers;
  • establish a camp to provide warmth and shelter;
  • give first aid;
  • provide predator control;
  • reassure evacuees that the situation is under control;
  • assist in setting up accommodations for evacuees in their communities;
  • be the points of contact between evacuees and the community, etc.

The actions that community-based groups could take during an MRO should be further developed and practiced by community members in partnership with federal and territorial agencies. The training and equipment required to complete these tasks should be provided to community-based groups and tracked through community emergency plans. Community emergency plans should be kept as up to date as possible and be built to reflect the specific local contexts of each community. A generalized or standardized plan will not work in a real emergency.

While willing to follow the direction of the JRCC, the CAF, or Emergency Management Nunavut, community first responders stressed that they also expected these agencies to listen to the information and suggestions that they passed along, and to act upon their recommendations and approaches. The need to listen to community-based responders was repeated frequently.

Communication and coordination would be vital in an MRO (at the community-level, between responders and the JRCC, responders and the ship’s crew, between the different groups acting at the scene, etc). Lines of communication and coordination must be firmly established and put to the test through exercises.

As the regional hub for the Kitikmeot, Cambridge Bay is well equipped with both the human and physical infrastructure required to deal with a disaster involving hundreds of people – the community’s size, capacity in terms of transport, shelter, food, medical care facilities, and its highly effective community-based GSAR team and Coast Guard Auxiliary unit are all key assets. The community has also established clear lines of communication and information flow in case of an emergency. The community could host evacuees for several days if required.

Participants noted that, while the other Kitikmeot communities also have effective community-based groups that could respond to an MRO, even a short stay by evacuees would place a severe strain on their existing physical infrastructure.

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