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Gard News 192, November 2008/January 2009

Salvage by committee? – The UK system of handling marine emergencies

The UK system of handling marine emergencies is one of the best in the world.

Following the SEA EMPRESS casualty in Milford Haven, Wales, in 1996, Lord Donaldson was instructed by the UK government to carry out a full review of how the government, through its various arms and agencies, should in future respond to marine emergencies.   In the course of his review, which produced the report entitled “Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas”, Lord Donaldson observed that “salvage by committee” was generally ineffective and inefficient.   In his opinion, what was needed in such emergencies was a single voice, able to make and enforce decisions on behalf of the UK government and in the overriding public interest, and, if necessary, to override any and all other interested parties. Thus was born the idea of a “SOSREP”.

What (or who) is SOSREP?
The acronym SOSREP stands for Secretary of State’s Representative.    SOSREP is a civil servant, responsible to the government for his actions, but in keeping with Lord Donaldson’s recommendations, he is in fact largely free to act on his own initiative, without having to refer matters to his political masters.   Not only does this mean that decisions can be taken quickly, it means that such decisions are generally taken on the basis of facts, logic and reason, rather than on the basis of political and emotional considerations.   SOSREP has the final and decisive voice, the ultimate control and the ultimate responsibility.    As Lord Donaldson put it, the government must either “back him or sack him”.    Since the position was established some nine years ago, there have been nearly 800 incidents in which SOSREP has been involved.    At the time of writing, the SOSREP has been backed in every case.

What authority does SOSREP have?
Pursuant to several pieces of UK legislation, SOSREP has wide authority.   Insofar as ships are concerned, he can step in and issue directions to any ship, shipowner or operator, for the purpose of preventing or reducing pollution, or for safety purposes.   In relation to pollution prevention or reduction, his authority extends for 200 nautical miles, or the international median line, whichever is the less.   In relation to safety issues, his authority extends only to UK territorial waters – 12 nautical miles.

Within these areas, his powers are wide.   SOSREP can give instructions to anyone involved in a marine emergency.   Most obviously, this will be the shipowner, but it could be a salvor, a harbourmaster, or, in the context of an exclusion zone established around a ship which is wrecked, damaged or in distress, other ships in the area.   He can order a shipowner to enter into a salvage contract, or he can order a harbourmaster to grant a place of safety to a vessel in distress.   His overriding responsibility is to act in the wider public interest.   If SOSREP does not take any such action, it is usually because he is satisfied with the steps being taken to deal with the incident.   Thus silence is – usually – approval.   It is worth noting that, out of the almost 800 incidents mentioned above, less than 70 Notices of Direction (i.e., instructions) have been given.   This suggests that, in the majority of incidents, SOSREP has been satisfied with the steps taken by the shipowner.

SOSREP’s powers also apply to all offshore installations within the UK continental shelf.   He can give directions to the operators or managers of any installation within this area.   As with ships in distress, he can establish an exclusion zone around an installation which is wrecked, damaged or in distress.

How does SOSREP function?
SOSREP has a very small team.   He has a deputy and an administrative assistant.   Strictly speaking, he is not a part of the Maritime and Coastguard agency (MCA), but he is often physically located within the MCA.   He works very closely with them and will usually utilise the people in the Counter-Pollution and Response branch, their contacts and knowledge.   In any particular case, SOSREP may also choose to appoint his own advisers.   These may be salvage experts, pollution experts, environmental experts, tug brokers, etc.   In addition, there are four Emergency Towing Vehicles (ETVs), which are on contract to the MCA on a year-round basis and which are based at strategic locations around the UK.   These can be utilised if commercial salvage assistance is, for any reason, unable to perform the services required.There are four areas on which SOSREP focuses: search and rescue, salvage and avoidance or containment of any pollution, clean-up of any pollution and the media interest.   As stated above, SOSREP will be assisted and advised by the MCA and outside experts in some or all of these areas, but his is the final and deciding voice.   SOSREP will personally attend at the scene of a casualty, usually basing himself in the local coastguard offices.

When not directing casualties, SOSREP spends a lot of time meeting his opposite numbers in other countries, especially those with whom the UK has a casualty response agreement, training and carrying out exercises.

Gard’s view of the SOSREP system
Gard has a lot of experience with the way in which governments and authorities all over the world respond to marine emergencies.   In our view, the SOSREP system is one of the very best. Why?

In assessing any system designed to respond to marine emergencies, two broad issues must be considered.   Firstly, is the system designed to be efficient and effective?    In particular, how is the decision-making process designed?   Does one person have overriding authority, or are decisions taken by a group of people and if so, how many?  This is the more theoretical aspect.  Secondly, is the system operated in such a way that it is effective and efficient?   This focuses more on the practical issues.  

Marine emergencies often require decisions to be taken quickly, especially at the start of such an emergency.   A delay of hours and sometimes minutes can be critical.   There will be many parties who either are or perceive themselves to be interested in a marine emergency, but it is simply not practical for them all to be consulted or involved in  making critical decisions, especially when time is of the essence.   This is where one of the merits of the SOSREP system is apparent: the ability and power of SOSREP to take charge and issue instructions to any party involved in the emergency.    As we have seen, in nearly 800 matters, over some nine years, SOSREP has been backed by the UK government.   The benefit to those dealing directly with the emergency is the power SOSREP has to make quick and binding decisions.   Lord Donaldson was right.   Salvage by committee does not work.

A further benefit of the SOSREP system is that although SOSREP reports to and is ultimately subordinate to the UK government, politics are kept as far away from the decision-making process as possible.    This means that decisions can be taken based on reason, common sense and professional assessments by industry experts.   The industry has experienced many cases where politicians interfere in the handling of marine emergencies, usually for their own political ends, often making a serious situation much worse.  The SOSREP system avoids this as much as possible.  

When it comes to the practical operation of the system, it is Gard’s experience that, while reserving to himself the final word, SOSREP will listen to the shipowners’ point of view.    It is unrealistic to expect that owners’ view will always be taken into account.    However, when one starts from the position that all parties are working together to resolve a difficult problem, it is usually possible to establish a good working relationship.   Subsequent discussions and decision-making thus become more straightforward.     

It may be no coincidence that other countries have adopted or are considering adopting a SOSREP-type system.   For example, Australia has a MERCOM – Marine Emergency Response Commander – with similar authority.    The system requires trust and confidence in the individual chosen for the position on the part not only of his political masters, but also those with whom he will come into contact professionally: shipowners and insurers, salvors, tug brokers, surveyors, etc. 

It is understood there is disagreement between the European parliament and the European Union transport ministers as to whether politicians or independent  authorities should decide whether ships in distress should be granted a place of safety.   The EU transport ministers wish to keep to themselves the decision-making authority.   Certain members of the European Parliament consider that the authority should rest with authorities which are “independent” of politicians.   This one word is reportedly causing much debate in relation to the draft EU Directive on vessels’ traffic monitoring.   At the time of writing, no agreement has been reached.

It may be instructive to examine the UK model.   Although the Secretary of State for Transport retains the ultimate power in such matters and is able to “back or sack” SOSREP, it is in practice SOSREP to whom the decision-making authority is delegated.    Is it the system or the individual?   The answer  is probably both.   Either, without the other, might not be enough.There is much talk of “learning lessons” from previous matters.   Many may feel, therefore, that there is much for Europe to learn about handling marine casualties when the case of the PRESTIGE is compared to the way in which the UK (and certain other states) respond quickly and positively to requests for help from ships in distress.

At a time when marine casualties are becoming more complicated and expensive, the UK system is a model which could usefully be adopted by many countries.


Gard News 192, November 2008/January 2009

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Gard News is published quarterly by Gard AS, Arendal, Norway.