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Search and Rescue

Search and rescue (SAR) provision in the UK is delivered through an amalgam of government departments, emergency services and various SAR charities and voluntary organisations. UK SAR is organised through the UK SAR Strategic Committee, an inter-departmental body which is currently chaired by the Department for Transport (DfT).

HM Coastguard provides a response and co-ordination service for air- and sea-based SAR in the UK. HM Coastguard is a section of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which is itself an agency of the DfT.HM Coastguard has existed since 1822 and celebrated its bicentenary in 2022.

HM Coastguard co-ordinates air and sea-based SAR through its nine operations centres around the UK. These are in Shetland, Aberdeen, Humber, Dover, Fareham, Falmouth, Milford Haven, Holyhead, Belfast and Stornoway. Additionally, London Coastguard is co-located with the Port of London Authority and looks after SAR on the River Thames. HM Coastguard has its National Maritime Operations Centre, at Fareham in Hampshire, at its hub.

According to the MCA’s Strategic Overview of SAR in the UK, HM Coastguard’s role “includes the mobilisation, organisation and tasking of adequate resources to respond to persons in distress in the air, at sea, in tidal waters or at risk of injury or death on the sea cliffs and shoreline of the UK.”

Other authorities, primarily the police services, also have an SAR role. Police services co-ordinate land-based SAR operations. As with HM Coastguard, police services enable specialist, mainly voluntary organisations to respond to incidents and emergencies. 

Fire services, ambulance services, and the Ministry of Defence may all also be involved in responding to SAR incidents, as can as a range of voluntary organisations (such as Mountain Rescue, the British Cave Rescue Council, and Beach Lifeguards). The assistance of these voluntary organisations is requested and tasked, through one of the civilian coordinating authorities – that is, a police service or HM Coastguard, who retain primacy for an overall incident.

HM Coastguard discharges the MCA’s responsibilities as a ‘Category 1’ responder for maritime emergencies under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. Other category 1 responders include the Ambulance, Fire and Police services. In emergencies, 999 calls can be directed to HM Coastguard, who can also be contacted by seafarers issuing a ‘mayday’ broadcast.

Lifeboat services

HM Coastguard provides its own lifeboat services, which are often partially or fully staffed by volunteers in its Coastguard Rescue Service. This operates in 18 regions along the UK coast. According to the MCA, HM Coastguard responded to over 33,000 incidents in 2020.

Lifeboat services are also delivered by a range of voluntary and charitable organisations, which can receive requests for SAR assistance from HM Coastguard. The biggest of these is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

The RNLI is a charity, incorporated by Royal Charter for the purpose of saving lives, promoting safety and providing relief from disaster, primarily at sea and on specific inland waters. It has a fleet of lifeboats in the UK, Channel Islands, Isle of Man and Republic of Ireland, which are declared for SAR purposes to the relevant national authorities.

According to their annual operational statistics report [PDF], RNLI lifeboat crews aided 12,903 people and saved 296 lives in 2021.

In addition to the RNLI, other smaller voluntary organisations provide lifeboats in various coastal areas of the UK. These organisations are expected to abide by the MCA’s Rescue Boat Code. Many of these are represented by the National Independent Lifeboat Association (NILA), which was set up in 2022 and whose membership includes:

  • Humber Rescue (Yorkshire/Lincolnshire)
  • Jersey Lifeboat Association (Jersey)
  • Lagan Search & Rescue (Belfast)
  • Loch Lomond Rescue Boat (Stirlingshire/Dunbartonshire)
  • Hope Cove Lifeboat (Devon)

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