Salvage by committee? - The UK system of handling marine emergencies
Gard News 192, November 2008/January 2009
|Salvage by committee? – The UK system of handling marine emergencies|
What (or who) is SOSREP?
What authority does SOSREP have?
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?
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
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 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 is published quarterly by Gard AS, Arendal, Norway.