Thinking about search and rescue from the bottom up

Analysis | Discussions about search and rescue fail to include the contributions local communities can make – at passengers’ peril

The fog of tourism

Jessica Shadian

Arctic search and rescue (SAR) is on many people’s minds these days. Well, at least on the minds of those who live and rely on the Arctic for fishing and hunting – not to mention those who might be following the upcoming voyage of the Crstyal Serenity through the Northwest Passage in August.

Putting aside what one thinks about the sanity (much less the serenity) of the Northwest Passage voyage, what seems to be missing from many of the conversations about Arctic SAR is the role that local communities willingly and unwillingly should, can and will play in an emergency situation.

The recent agreements made by the eight Arctic states under the auspices of the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group as well as efforts to create an Arctic Coast Guard Forum all go a long way in creating a regional approach to deal with the many types of possible shipping accidents which could occur, many of which would very likely be trans-border in nature. Up to this point, however, the agreements have primarily focused on the eight Arctic states from the perspective of the nation-state and how national governments can co-operate with one another if an incident should occur.

For instance, though the oil-spill agreement acknowledges the threat oil pollution poses to the livelihoods of local and indigenous communities, the agreement is among the eight Arctic states and does not discuss the actual participation of local communities (the agreement is guided on the assumptions of conventional interstate borders and treaty making).

The SAR agreement does not make any mention of Arctic indigenous or other local communities and, as such, it goes even further to ignore the simple fact that any search and rescue effort will set out on its mission from a number of local communities (namely indigenous communities when it comes to the North American Arctic) along the Arctic’s shores.

While co-operation between organisations is critical and necessary, there is the reality that much of what happens during a SAR mission will take place on the ground with and within local communities. In many cases those communities are extremely small – some with only a few hundred inhabitants – and in all cases those communities want to have the capacity to lend a hand. Local communities understand that their livelihood depends on clean waters and the limited deliveries of food and energy once or twice a year that could be subsumed within a day with the influx of several thousand tourists seeking safety. We know from experience that these are not merely hypothetical discussions.

For example, in the days following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, as oil was still gushing out from the well and while witnessing the end of their economic incomes, a number of crab fisherman made attempts to help clean up the spill.

Although they had boats and that they were ready to help, they noted that there were no clear lines of communication or an existing plan to provide them with the means to participate in the clean-up process. Acy Cooper, one of these fishermen, was interviewed during the cleanup. He was frustrated that the US Coast Guard and BP, the oil rig’s operator, (which were put in charge after the spill) had waited until two days after the spill began to begin recruiting local fishermen to help. According to Mr Cooper, “We should’ve been the first one they contacted. … We know the bayous better than anyone else.’.

In another instance, in September 2010, the MV Clipper Adventurer ran aground about 60 nautical miles from Kugluktuk, an Inuit hamlet on the Northwest Passage. The first Canadian Coast Guard response came from the CCGS Amundsen, which was redirected there from the Beaufort Sea, where it was participating in a science mission. Getting there took a day and a half. The first point of land was the Inuit hamlet. Hamlet staff opened the community hall for people to sleep, the supermarket was opened and many residents pitched in offering blankets, pillows and other supplies.

In an incident such as this involving a stricken tourist ship, a coast guard and a local indigenous community, responsibility for compensation cannot be adequately accounted for by existing domestic or international law. What would result if a ship (likely flagged in another country) has an emergency which results in its passengers utilising all of a local community’s provisions? Who is responsible and who oversees the responsibility?

While it may be the case that Serenity’s passengers have a great deal of confidence that Crystal, the company that owns the ship, and its crew will ensure their safety – as does Sue Pendleton, who holds a reservation to sail on the Serenity this summer, and who was quoted in a recent New York Times article on the voyage – local community assurance of their own safety and security is less than certain.

According to the Times, “even though Crystal was taking the unusual step of requiring passengers to carry $50,000 in evacuation insurance”, Ms Pendleton wasn’t concerned. She merely stated that “there are plenty of lifeboats on board”. Whether a lifeboat will be enough to keep Ms Pendleton alive for days or even weeks at sea in the High Arctic is one thing. Yet, if the passengers should get to shore, is it Crystal or passengers like Ms Pendleton who have a legal obligation to compensate a host community for housing, feeding and giving medical attention to unexpected tourists – tourists who are most prepared to drink vodka martinis on the poolside deck? Despite Ms Pendleton’s optimism, instituting clear plans and moreover establishing a regionally coordinated system for SAR is a necessity.

If we shift our gaze down to the local level it becomes apparent that, in fact, local efforts for emergency preparedness and response and SAR do exist. In almost all cases they are made up partly of local community members, often they are voluntary, and in other cases they also involve private industry. At the same time, by bringing our gaze to the front lines it is possible not only to see what works well but also identify the gaps that remain. Beyond the fact that there are not enough local systems in place, the most obvious of these are infrastructure and community capacity.

On the front lines
Iceland, with a population of a little over 300,000, has a countrywide volunteer search and rescue system known as ICE-SAR comprised of 100 teams and thousands of individuals. Its origins can be traced back to the early 20th century when its economy was entirely dependent on fishing (it is now its second-largest industry behind tourism). At that time, the wives of the fishermen, tired of losing their husbands at sea decided to set up a system that can help find lost fishermen. Today ICE-SAR is composed of volunteers, who, after a two-year training programme, are qualified to take part in search and rescue efforts on land as well as both at sea and along the coast of Iceland.

Maritime and coastal SAR includes close to 200 equipped lifeboats ready for use. ICE-SAR works in collaboration with the Icelandic Coast Guard, which serves as the first point of communication. Once the coast guard is contacted it directly contacts the appropriate regional head of ICE- SAR. Currently ICE- SAR is an all-volunteer organisation and its funding, including the funding of all of its equipment (helicopters, boats, automobiles etc), comes entirely from the sales of New Year’s Eve fireworks (offset by public funding that goes to serve coast-guard operations).

Though Iceland’s ICE-SAR system has worked up to this point, could the system could handle a sinking tourist ship the size of one the tourist ships that are increasingly calling on the country? “No,” says Kjartan Ólafsson, the head of the coastal and sea unit there. This is then compounded by the likely prospect that Icelandic tourism will continue to increase and that Greenland and Iceland hope to co-operate more closely to attract tourists, will bring more ships including a larger number of trans-border cruises.

In another arrangement, one can turn to the very north of Norway, to Eni’s Goliat oil field in the Barents Sea, off the coast of Hammerfest. Historically, Hammerfest is a fishing community and remains so today. There is no-one with a greater interest in preventing a spill than the fishermen themselves. Throughout Norway there has been a co-ordinated effort to address emergency preparedness and response and the result was the creation of the Norwegian Clean Seas Association for Operating Companies (NOFO).

If a spill should occur NOFO, as a co-ordinating organisation, is responsible for the tactical and operational management of recovery resources in use. NOFO is owned and operated by the oil and gas companies operating on the Norwegian continental shelf. As an outcome of NOFU, Eni has set up the InnsatsGruppe Kyst (Coastal Work Group) contingency plan for the Goliat field. The Coastal Work Group is designed to be a “permanent contingency organisation, in which fishing vessels from Finnmark will contribute to the oil recovery operation”. The coastal contingency system includes 30 fishing vessels with a total of more than 100 crewmembers. The vessels are retrofitted to be able to operate light and mid-weight boom systems. All fishermen attend yearly training exercises and all fishermen and coastal volunteers receive a yearly salary and are paid when on the job.

The thinking behind NOFO actually reaches back to the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill, which resulted in the creation of a number of Regional Citizens Advisory Councils (RCAC) in Alaska. Predicated on those earlier Advisory Councils, the Arctic Waterways Safety Committee (AWSC) was created in October 2014. AWSC is a self-governing, multi-stakeholder group focused on creating and documenting best practices to ensure a safe, efficient and predictable operating environment for all users of Arctic waterways.

This includes efforts to balance the diverse interests in the Arctic waterways in the face of increased maritime travel, due in part to Arctic offshore drilling. The committee members consist of three categories: subsistence hunters, industry and other representatives. Ultimately, the committee is an opportunity to give various stakeholders a forum to solve differences in the Arctic waterways without involving regulatory intervention from federal authorities and therefore avoiding a drawn-out bureaucratic process.

What these three instances point to is a uniform desire among local communities throughout the Arctic to be involved in SAR. Involvement, however, requires resources. On-the-ground monitoring and being able to respond to an incident requires substantial investment, which will inevitably have to come from both the public and private sectors. The Arctic’s oceans and seas are vast, and making examples such as these the norm rather than the exception requires a regional approach to investment in local community capacity (resources, infrastructure etc).

At present, Iceland’s entire system is dependent on New Year’s Eve firework sales. To date, in Greenland, there is no official or voluntary community-level system in place. (Greenland’s SAR is operated by the Danish Navy and police and co-ordinated by the military’s Arctic Command, based in Nuuk. It consists of two naval vessels and a number of patrol ships in addition to two Air Greenland helicopters also based in Nuuk.)

On another note, in Norway, finances come from industry and in the case of Alaska, there is consensus that major public/private partnership investments are needed to build the wide range of resources needed, such as increased local capacity, establishing and maintaining monitoring systems, building port infrastructure and setting up a high-speed internet communication system, an obvious necessity for effective SAR. Insurance providers also play an essential role. What can the Arctic Council and IMO do better to be sure that insurance companies are obligated to contribute to community (not only industry and passenger) compensation if an emergency would take place?

At the same time, though most Arctic governments and the Arctic Council are committed to consulting with indigenous communities, consultation, simply stated, is not enough. For starters, the mere fact that the Arctic Council’s binding agreements are made under the auspices of the Arctic Council working groups and not the Arctic Council itself side steps the guaranteed participation of the six indigenous permanent participants who sit at the negotiating table. However, consultation is also far from sufficient because consulting with communities is not the same as formal collaboration with local first responders and it is not going to produce an effective system to ensure that the Arctic’s waters and people remain clean and safe.

Up to now, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum has been primarily concerned with nation-state co-operation among heads of state and taking stock of each county’s resources. The forum, however, is an opportune space to discuss what is happening on the ground and thinking critically about how to better bridge the local level to pan-Arctic co-operation, something that it should consider turning its attention to going into the future.

Moreover, it is an ideal institutional to equip so it can map out what existing activities are operating on the ground in order to learn how they could possibly be expanded as well as to recognise where the gaps remain. For instance, could NOFO serve as a trans-border model between Canada and Greenland or the US and Canada? Could there be a NOFO for the shipping industry and specifically for those shipping companies who plan to transit through Arctic waters? As the Deepwater Horizon incident demonstrated, SAR cannot always be top down. In some instances it will be bottom up, and the most efficient system would be one where both are working together to be ready to address an emergency at all levels.

In the Arctic, sovereignty over the physical boundaries of the eight states remain intact and in the case of the Arctic Ocean they are arguably expanding. Alongside those changes, Arctic nation-state co-operation is also increasing. Yet, conventional thinking about how to govern those political boundaries is being challenged by incidents that would not (eg a maritime emergency) and do not (eg climate change) adhere to those boundaries as well as new layers of political authority acting below, above and across state boundaries.

As the Arctic Council evolves towards a model which creates more enforceable policies, its challenge becomes to come up with an effective way to build-in local coastal community governance structures into its Arctic regional aims for SAR. Local Arctic communities are looking forward to welcoming the several thousand Bermuda-shorts-clad tourists getting ready to sail through the Northwest Passage this August, but it is going to take more than “a lot of lifeboats” to ensure their safety.

The author is the Nansen Professor at the University of Akureyri, Iceland, and a senior fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, Trinity College, University of Toronto. Her latest book is: ‘The politics of Arctic Sovereignty: Oil, Ice and Inuit Governance’ (2014).

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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