Lessons Learned from Incidents and Exercises

The MCA’s role in maritime emergency response

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), through its Search and Rescue (SAR) Branch – HM Coastguard – and its Counter Pollution Branch, and by close association with the salvage control functions of the Secretary of State’s Representative (SOSREP), is deeply involved in the response to all emergencies occurring around the coasts of the UK, leading that response in most cases.

Other Branches of the MCA’s Directorate of Operations are also involved, at the time of the incident or in its aftermath.  The Public Relations Branch, for example, have a leading and active role in dealing with the inevitable news media interest, and the Survey, Inspection, Maritime Security, and Enforcement Branches, and the Receiver of Wreck, each have responsibilities which may require their close participation.

Sharing lessons learned

While we strive in all we do to prevent emergencies occurring at sea, we know that they can never be eradicated entirely.  We can learn lessons from past emergencies that will help prevent their repetition – but we can also learn lessons from the way past emergencies were dealt with, which will help us and others deal better with such events in the future.

This part of the MCA site is dedicated primarily to the latter aim.  Here we provide relevant extracts from the final reports on our ‘national’ exercises, together with generic learning points gleaned from other exercises and from our very extensive incident experience.  We also include a section on ‘Useful questions’.  While by no means exhaustive, this section is intended to bring together many of the key questions we have found it beneficial to ask ourselves while response planning and during exercises.

We hope that this material will be of interest and assistance to all, and especially to emergency planners in the shipping, offshore oil & gas, fishing, and maritime leisure industries, and in the emergency services, local authorities and other responding agencies ashore.

This is a new part of the MCA’s site. More material will be posted as time goes by.  Comments on it will be welcomed: please see ‘Further information’ below.


It is, of course, the primary duty of our colleagues at the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB – see www.maib.gov.uk ) to conduct investigations into marine accidents.  This includes the investigation of the MCA’s emergency response if required.

We would like to emphasise that the information posted here is derived from MCA reports, not those of MAIB or any other body; and that they are not reports of full and formal investigations: that is not their function.

Working with our partners in the response to each emergency, we focus here on the operational lessons to be learned, so that overall our performance can be improved wherever possible.  We have not investigated causes or effects, and we certainly do not seek to apportion any blame!

To be self-critical of our systems and procedures is a positive – and essential – aspect of our business here.  Criticism of our friends, colleagues and fellow-responders in partner agencies is not, and should not be, implied.

Exercise types

Maritime emergency response exercises may be broadly grouped into one of four main types:

  • Full-Scale Live Exercises - which involve the active participation of resources such as SAR units, counter pollution resources, shipping, harbour authorities, local authorities, etc;
  • Co-ordination Exercises - which involve the active participation of command and co-ordinating agencies operating remotely from each other, but without the despatch of resources;
  • Tabletop Exercises - which involve groups of participants meeting to study a particular problem and discuss their responses to it;
  • Communications Exercises - which consist of the periodic use of all means of communication between all potential users.

Each of these types of exercise may be further refined to meet particular objectives.  For example, an exercise may be largely of the ‘co-ordination’ type but with some live input; and a ‘tabletop’ exercise may be anything from a major inter-agency event to an informal, in-house ‘what-if’ discussion.

The MCA definition of a ‘major exercise’ is that “the exercise (including tabletops) tests plans and procedures which are in place to deal with major maritime incidents which require the implementation of special arrangements by one or more of the emergency services or other authorities”.

A National exercise is “an exercise which tests the national response to a major maritime incident which involves deployment of SAR, Counter Pollution, Salvage and Surveyors resources through the activation of the National Contingency Plan”.

Basic MCA emergency response structures

Details of the MCA’s emergency response structures and procedures, and how they link with those of our colleagues in the shoreside emergency services, local authorities and industry may be found elsewhere on this site.  A very brief summary is included here in order to facilitate understanding of the reports and comments in this section.

HM Coastguard is primarily responsible for the initiation and co-ordination of civil maritime SAR operations in the UK SAR Region.  It does this from a total of 19 Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres and Sub Centres (MRCCs and MRSCs) around the UK.  When an incident occurs, a Coastguard officer at one of these centres assumes the internationally-recognised role of SAR Mission Co-ordinator.  In the more complex cases, senior officers are available to assist, both at the Area and the national level.

The Coastguard co-ordination centres also provide the primary communications function for the UK Government’s maritime counter pollution and salvage control operations.  Work to mitigate and respond to marine pollution is the business of the MCA’s Counter Pollution Branch, and salvage control – safeguarding the UK’s interests – is vested in the Secretary of State’s Representative (SOSREP).  In major counter pollution and/or salvage operations it is usual for the initial response to be led from the Marine Emergencies Information Room, at MCA’s headquarters in Southampton.  SOSREP and Counter Pollution Branch staff liaise closely with their Coastguard colleagues at the relevant co-ordination centre.  As the incident progresses, SOSREP and Counter Pollution Branch staff set up response centres near the incident scene – a Marine Response Centre dealing with at-sea counter pollution operations (which works closely with Shoreline Response Centres and Environment Groups established by the local authorities), and a Salvage Control Unit in support of SOSREP.

It is these centres – the (permanent) Coastguard co-ordination centres and the (incident-specific) Marine Response Centre, Salvage Control Unit, Shoreline Response Centre and Environment Groups, together with strategic and tactical groups established by the shoreside emergency services – which are the key components in the control and co-ordination of the response to major maritime emergencies.


Generic learning points are discussed in the link below.  One item which often appears in incident & exercise reports, however, we highlight here.  That is the matter of communications.

By ‘communications’ in this context, we mean all aspects of the subject, from specific equipment issues – a radio or a mobile phone that does not work in a particular area, for example – through the human element – individuals failing to pass information on or insufficiently trained to understand correctly the information passed to them – to the overall picture – such as incomplete communications between responding organisations, sometimes stemming from a failure to understand each others’ roles, responsibilities and information needs.

It is well recognised that good communications are a key element in providing an efficient and effective response to any emergency.  Yet ‘communications’ are often cited as having been a problem, to a greater or lesser extent, after major incidents or exercises.  It is one of the areas of emergency response that needs most to be improved; it can be improved, often quite readily; and yet, perversely, it seems to be an area resistant to improvement!  All those involved in emergency response should work to overcome that resistance before an emergency occurs as well as during it.

As an emergency response co-ordinating authority, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is very keen to play its part and to ensure that all communications problems, of whatever type, are overcome.  Publishing the information contained in this part of our site is just one of the ways in which we seek to achieve this aim.

Further information

Emergency planners requiring further information are invited to contact:

Roly McKie
SAR Operations Officer
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency
Bay 1/07, Spring Place
105 Commercial Road
Southampton SO15 1EG

Tel          +44 (0)23 8032 9332
Fax        +44 (0)23 8032 9488
Email     roly.mckie@mcga.gov.uk