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SAR Blog: Trouble in Paradise? Report highlights islands' search & rescue capability 

When you think of the Cayman Islands you picture a tropical Caribbean paradise famous for its beaches, azure seas and watersports. Most tourists wouldn’t think twice about the islands’ search and rescue capability, writes Martin Boyle.

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The Fire Service officially unveiled its new fire rescue vessel at the George Town Yacht Club on November 21, 2016 (photo: Courtesy Cayman Islands Fire Service)

However, a report released in February 2017 by the UK’s Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) has revealed some major gaps in the current capability. The Cayman Islands Overseas Territory Search and Rescue (OTSAR) Capability Review’ was conducted at the request of the Governor’s office by a team from the MCA based on the requirements of the International Aeronautical Maritime Search and Rescue (IAMSAR) manual. 

This was a direct result of a tragic incident on March 6, 2016, which saw five persons – including two children –go missing during a boating trip around Grand Cayman. This incident generated an independent review of the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service (RCIPS) response conducted by the MCA in April 2016, which found no fault with the SAR operation.

However, it did highlight areas of improvement in SAR infrastructure, oversight of operations, and integration of communications.

The Cayman Islands, a British Overseas Territory, has a permanent population of only 55,000, and receives more than 1.1 million visitor arrivals every year. Although there are no official statistics, anecdotal evidence suggests that 17 people died in water-related incidents during 2016.

The islands are party to treaties such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention). They are, however, not party to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) even though this has been recommended by the UK Government.

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The Joint Marine Unit comprises officers from RCIPS, HM Customs and Immigration. The Unit has multiple responsibilities with its major functions being search and rescue operations, as well as the interdiction of drugs and firearms. Officers also investigate maritime incidents, marine property thefts and illegal immigrants at sea. They patrol waterborne tourist activity areas, conduct maritime safety checks and police maritime public activities such as regattas, swims etc. The unit currently runs the patrol vessel ‘Cayman Guardian’ (pictured here) as its main workhorse, supported with smaller faster vessels (Image courtesy Maritime & Coastguard Agency ‘Review of the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service Response to Reports of Missing Persons at Sea’, March 6, 2016, see above for link

Currently the Cayman Islands Maritime Search and Rescue Region (SRR) is provisional and hasn’t officially been declared in the global Search and Rescue Plan. 

In terms of aeronautical search and rescue the Cayman Islands Terminal Manoeuvring Area (TMA) is covered by the neighbouring Kingston Flight Information Region during air traffic control hours of operation. Despite the lack of a legislative framework, SAR is provided by the RCIPS in the form of a Joint Marine Unit (JMU) and Air Operations Unit (AOU).

The capability review found that four out of six JMU Vessels were poorly maintained or out of service. Both long-range vessels were either decommissioned or out of service, with the remaining two only suitable for inshore response. There was a chronic lack of personnel resources in JMU with staffing levels falling 50 per cent below capacity.

A critical aspect of any SAR capability is a formal training and exercise programme. The review identified that there were no internal RCIPS or externally facilitated exercises being conducted and no structured system in place. Operational SAR units were found to lack Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), which previously existed until a server defect wiped out the critical data.

There is also no cross agency SAR incident reporting process. Incident co-ordination is dealt with across various agencies and there is no single Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC). It was identified that there were no co-operative agreements in place for SAR operations, though there was a well-established relationship with the US Coastguard.

Of concern was the lack of government owned maritime SAR capability for the sister islands Cayman Brac and Little Cayman owing to the absence of long range vessels.

From simple fixes to more complex legislative changes, the review proposed a range of recommendations for short to long-term corrective actions. Integrating existing support, such as the dive response network and utilising volunteer networks in SAR operations, could alleviate some of the short-term personnel shortfall. The Cayman Islands Fire Service (CIFS) also proposed a low cost solution to enhance rapid inshore response capability through the purchase of jet skis. CIFS personnel are available 24/7 and situated in dispersed locations around the island. There will most likely be no shortage of volunteers for these duties!

Improving the short-term viability of SAR facilities means recommissioning and refitting vessels for offshore and inshore operations. This comes at a substantial cost but, given the size of the SRR and the high numbers of cruise ships, migrant traffic and other marine vessels, it would be wise for RCIPS to restore this capability.

As a longer-term measure, extending the SAR Convention to the Cayman Islands and creating a strategic SAR Co-ordinating Committee and Working Group will improve co-operation between the various SAR communities. This will assist in enhancing the information flow needed for a SAR common operating picture.

This report, the first in a series of SAR capability reviews of British Overseas Territories, has exposed significant issues in the Cayman Islands. The Cayman Island Governor’s Office should be commended for its courage in calling for the review. As more reviews are undertaken, a bigger picture may become apparent and opportunities for improvement and collaboration can only enhance the global SAR safety system. 

Martin Boyle, 16/03/2017
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