When the alarm is raised at sea a sequence of well-rehearsed steps swings into action to effect the rescue:
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday
Whatever the emergency at sea, in the UK, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) coordinates all the search and rescue (SAR) units and decides whether to launch a lifeboat, scramble a helicopter or call out a mud or cliff rescue team or other group. In the RoI, the SAR units are coordinated by the Irish Coast Guard.
If someone is in trouble at sea the MCA or Irish Coast Guard may receive a call by radio or by telephone (999 or 112 – the European and mobile phone emergency number). Also, one of the modern distress beacons, which many boats and ships carry, can automatically send out a distress signal if it ends up in the water. The Coastguard then decides which SAR unit is needed to go to the incident, calls them out and manages the rescue.
Alerting the crew
If a lifeboat is required then the Coastguard sets the pagers off and contacts the Lifeboat Operations Manager (LOM) or Deputy Launching Authority (DLA) and requests the launch of the lifeboat. Once the LOM/DLA gives permission to launch the lifeboat, the crew and launchers are then alerted by pager. The RNLI uses its own Call Out and Communications System (COACS).
To a crew member, a pager is like any other bit of clothing that's put on or carried with them everywhere, every day. It's always with them, day or night. The pagers give off different tones to tell the crew which boat is required and they can also be set to vibrate with a flashing light. Short messages can be sent in less than 30 seconds, for example: 'Launch request Coastguard/Launch ILB/Launch ALB/Launch both boats'.
Bikes, buggies and scooters... arriving at the station
When the pagers go off the lifeboat crew may be at home, out shopping, at work or even asleep, and when they hear the pager they stop what they're doing and rush to the lifeboat station as quickly, but as safely, as possible. They may jump into their cars or even run down to the station but children's scooters and ride-on grass cutters have all been used to get crew and launchers to the station.
Although the mode of transport may be different for every crew member there's one thing that's always the same – the butterflies and the adrenalin start pumping and the question that's asked is: 'I wonder what the shout will be this time?'
Getting kitted up
Once the coxswain of the all-weather lifeboat (ALB) and/or the helmsman of the inshore lifeboat (ILB) arrive they can then find out what the problem is and decide on the best course of action to take and which crew members to take. If possible, the call outs (or shouts) are shared so that all of the crew gain in experience.
The number of crew on a lifeboat depends on which lifeboat is launched – three crew are needed for the Inshore Lifeboat and six crew on the Mersey Class All Weather Lifeboat. The Lifeboat Operations Manager may decide to launch both boats.
The crew then get kitted up in their protective clothing. For ALB lifeboat crew this means yellow waterproof trousers and jacket, yellow wellies, lifejacket and helmet. For the inshore lifeboat crew they wear a drysuit (with yellow wellies attached), a wooly bear thermal suit, lifejacket and helmet.
Launching the lifeboat
Successful rescues are all about teams working together and this happens even before the lifeboat has been launched. The lifeboat crews and launchers all work together to make sure the lifeboat is launched safely.
Normally the lifeboats launch within 6 minutes but you never know how long you will be out for when the pager goes off. You can sometimes go out for a Shout which can be close to the Lifeboat Station, up the river or miles offshore.
As the crew are getting dressed the launchers prepare either the ALB, ILB or both boats to launch. The ALB is a slipway launched lifeboat and the ILB is launched by means of a davit crane.
Once the lifeboat has been launched the rescue starts in earnest. The radio operator talks to the Coastguard on the radio and asks them for an update of the situation and also passes on details of who is onboard the lifeboat. Each lifeboat crew member has a number and the Coastguard stations in each area have lists of all their names and numbers for each station.
All the radio operator needs to do is to pass on the crew numbers to the Coastguard: 'Crew numbers 3, 11, and 29 onboard.' With so many families and people with the same surnames it means that there can be no confusion about who is going out and also it saves trying to spell some of the more difficult names!
The need to pass on the numbers is, of course, something that no one wants to think about. If there is an injury or worse, a death, everyone will quickly know who is on the lifeboat.
The initial contact with the Coastguard provides the crew with some details about the incident – what the casualty is, where it is, how many people are involved, whether anyone has been injured and whether they are likely to need medical attention.
All of this information is useful so the crew can plot a course to the casualty and start getting any equipment ready they may need – first aid equipment, salvage pump if a boat is taking on water, scramble net to get someone out of the water, or ropes to tow a boat.
If it's going to be a long shout the crew will even put on the water heater (on an all-weather lifeboat) so they can make cups of tea or soup later on, both for the survivors and themselves.
Arriving on scene the crew lets the Coastguard know and then checks out the situation and assesses what they need to do and talks to the casualty if possible. What might seem like a straightforward rescue to the lifeboat crew can be a frightening experience for the people involved and so it's important for the crew to provide a friendly face and to reassure them that they will do all they can to sort the situation out.
Equally for the lifeboat crew, as well as the people involved, it can be a tense and dramatic time and the coxswain/helmsman and crew have to make quick and effective decisions. Often a great deal of courage, determination, skill, leadership, agility and perseverance is required to carry out a successful rescue.
The rescue can sometimes take just a few minutes, or it can take several hours. However long it takes, the crews communicate with each other and the Coastguard, and work together towards a successful outcome.
Some rescues rely on the teamwork of lifeboat and helicopter crews or other rescue teams and when Berwick lifeboat volunteers answer the call for help, a host of other rescue teams can be called upon as required.
HM Coastguard or the Irish Coast Guard coordinates the rescues and can also call upon the services of:
• other RNLI lifeboats in the area
• RNLI lifeguards based on beaches in the area
• volunteer coastguard rescue teams
• harbour authorities
• ambulance service
• fire and rescue service
Training exercises are organised so that crews become used to working with other search and rescue teams.
Returning to the station
After the rescue is over and the lifeboat has been brought back to the station it has to be washed outside and cleaned inside (especially after a really rough shout – yuk!), no matter what time of day or night. All the equipment is checked and any items replaced or restocked. The fuel tank is filled and the boat is left ready for the next launch which could be tomorrow or not for another few weeks. Whenever it happens, the lifeboats, the crew, the launchers and everyone involved will be ready.