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Six steps to rescue

You’ve seen and read about dramatic rescues carried out by our volunteers – a battle with wind and waves, the moment they snatched someone to safety. But how does a rescue mission come together in the first place, and what happens behind the scenes? We explain the vital first six steps in any lifeboat rescue:

Lytham St Annes crew members Vinni Pedley, Tony Cox and Mike Gee hit the beach in their in all-weather kit.

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Lytham St Annes volunteers Vinni Pedley, Tony Cox and Mike Gee hit the beach in their in all-weather kit

One: mayday!

A coastguard picks up the mayday of a capsized kayaker over VHF radio

Photos: RNLI/Nathan Williams, Planefocus Ltd

A coastguard picks up the mayday of a capsized kayaker over VHF radio

No, we’re not talking about the RNLI’s famous annual fundraising event here. We mean your initial call that kicks everyone into action. In many ways this is the most important element of a rescue. If you’re in trouble at sea but can’t raise the alarm, no one will know you’re in danger (unless you’re lucky and someone spots you). It’s why our water safety team always encourage you to carry a means of calling for help – and to know how to use it and keep it in reach at all times. 

The two most common methods are to dial 999 or 112 on your mobile and ask for the coastguard, or to put out a mayday over VHF radio. You may have kitted up with a personal or onboard device to automatically send a distress signal too. Read more about calling for help here.

Whatever the case, if you’re in UK or Irish waters, your alert will go to Her Majesty’s Coastguard (HMCG) or the Irish Coast Guard (IRCG). They will try to get as much information as they can to assess your situation. If you’re speaking directly, they’ll also give you immediate advice and reassurance.

Paul Fisher, RNLI Senior Operations Manager, says: ‘The coastguard coordinates all the search and rescue teams and will draw on the most appropriate assets for your emergency. They may request a lifeboat launch, scramble a helicopter, or call on another team like a cliff or mud rescue unit. In many cases, the coastguard will task multiple agencies. Our lifeboat crews have special relationships with all these agencies, and train with them regularly.’

Two: crew alert

If the coastguard decides you need a lifeboat, they will page the duty launching authority of the most appropriate RNLI station. The launching authority will then immediately call the coastguard back to get more details. 

‘They’ll want to know who you are, where you are, if you’re in the water, if you’re hurt and need medical attention, and if others are involved,’ says Paul. ‘If the launching authority agrees that a lifeboat launch is the best course of action, they’ll give the coastguard permission to page the crew direct. The entire process takes less than a minute. At stations with more than one lifeboat, the team may decide to launch multiple assets if appropriate.’

Three: to the station

Our lifeboat crew are never without their pagers. They carry them day and night, wherever they go. They could be at home, shopping, at work, or even asleep when they get the call. Their pagers will shriek into life and display a short message like ‘Launch ILB’ (for an inshore lifeboat launch request). The volunteers will immediately stop what they're doing and head to the station as quickly and safely as possible. They may take their car, bicycle, or even run. Inevitably, the adrenalin will start pumping and they will be eager to find out what they’re dealing with.

Meanwhile, the coxswain or helm will also need to confirm that launching this specific lifeboat is appropriate. Paul says: ‘This forms a triple check. A lifeboat will only launch if the coastguard, launching authority and coxswain (or helm) have all given the green light.’

Four: choosing the crew

The station will now be a hive of activity. Paul says: ‘The launching authority will be helping the coxswain or helm choose the most appropriate crew for the rescue, based on the latest knowledge from the coastguard call.’ Time is a factor but they need a moment to reflect all possible outcomes. So it’s not necessarily about haring off with the first people through the door. 

‘They will want the best crew for the job,’ says Paul. ‘And may hang on a moment for someone with specialist skills to arrive. If it’s a medical emergency it would be good to take someone who is a paramedic in their day job. Or it could be a yacht in trouble, so having a crew member onboard who is an experienced sailor might be handy.’ Read more on choosing a crew here.

Five: preparing for action 

Skegness crew members change into their all-weather lifeboat kit before heading to the lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Skegness crew members change into their all-weather lifeboat kit before heading to the lifeboat

It’s vital that everyone knows what is going on and what their role will be. It's also important that crew are given a chance to ask questions. So, at this point, they will undergo a five-part briefing known as SMEAC – which stands for Situation; Mission; Execution; Administration; and Command, Communication and Confirmation

Situation covers the background and known hazards. It might be that your yacht has run aground on rocks, the weather is deteriorating rapidly, and the coastguard have a rescue team on the clifftop who can guide the lifeboat to the casualty,’ says Paul.

Mission is the “what”. That could be that the crew will go out, assess conditions on scene, and formulate a plan to get you to safety.

Execution is the “how” – a technical brief on what the coxswain or helm wants each crew member to do. For example, he might ask Steve and Laura to be ‘eyes up front’, and Kitty and Alex to be readying fenders and lines. This would also include an emergency plan to ensure crew safety.

Administration is all the additional details, like ensuring everyone has the right personal protective equipment and what specialist equipment will be taken, like a salvage pump. 

Command, Communication and Confirmation ensures everyone understands their role and the plan, details what to do if comms are lost, sets timings for safety calls with the coastguard, and also gives an opportunity to ask questions.

‘That’s the long version,’ says Paul. ‘The brief can be given quite quickly, depending on the situation and the urgency.’ 

The crew will already be kitted up in protective clothing. This includes base layers, foul-weather jacket and trousers (or drysuit for inshore crews), boots, helmet and lifejacket. At the time of writing, this also includes Covid-safe PPE like medical-grade masks and gloves. 

Six: launch!

Redcar volunteers launch into the surf from their lifeboat carriage

Photo: Dave Cocks

Redcar volunteers launch into the surf from their lifeboat carriage

Meanwhile, the shore crew are readying the lifeboat and other equipment. If the lifeboat is carriage-launched, the launch and recovery driver will be starting their vehicle and, at an inshore station, launchers may be waiting at the shoreline to help get the lifeboat in to the water. They will update the coastguard that they have launched on service and estimate their time of arrival on scene. This is the moment where a dramatic rescue account often begins.

Paul says: ‘There are a lot of important decisions and activities undertaken to get to this point but the overall process itself is pretty quick and simple. On average it takes less than 10 minutes from coastguard request to launch.’ 

Thank you

Of course, we left out one vital part of the process: you. No rescue mission would be possible without your donations and support. You help provide the buildings, the heating and lighting, lifeboats, launching equipment, fuel, crew kit and the training – all essential to every rescue. That makes you a lifesaver too.