SAR amendments enter into force on 1 January 2000



Amendments to International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue
enter into force on 1 January 2000

A revised Annex to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR Convention) enters into force on 1 January 2000.

The original SAR Convention was adopted at a conference in Hamburg in 1979, under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations agency concerned with the safety of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution.

The Convention, which entered into force in 1985, was aimed at developing an international SAR plan, so that, no matter where an accident occurs, the rescue of persons in distress at sea will be co-ordinated by a SAR organization and, when necessary, by co-operation between neighbouring SAR organizations. Although the obligation of ships to go to the assistance of vessels in distress was enshrined both in tradition and in international treaties (such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974 - SOLAS), there was, until the adoption of the SAR Convention, no international system covering search and rescue operations. In some areas there was a well-established organization able to provide assistance promptly and efficiently, in others there was nothing at all.

However, the 1979 SAR Convention imposed considerable obligations on Parties - such as setting up the shore installations required - and as a result the Convention was not being ratified by as many countries as some other treaties. By the end of 1997, for example, the SAR Convention had been ratified by only 56 countries, whose combined merchant fleets represented less than 50% of world tonnage. Equally important, many of the world's coastal States had not accepted the Convention and the obligations it imposed.

It was generally agreed that one reason for the small number of acceptances and the slow pace of implementation was due to problems with the SAR Convention itself and that these could best be overcome by amending the Convention. At a meeting in October 1995 in Hamburg, Germany, it was agreed that there were a number of substantial concerns that needed to be taken into account, including: lessons learned from SAR operations; experiences of States which had implemented the Convention; questions and concerns posed especially by developing States which were not yet Parties to the Convention; need to further harmonize the IMO and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) SAR provisions; inconsistent use of the Convention terminology and phraseology.

The Sub-Committee on Radio-Communications and Search and Rescue (COMSAR) was requested to revise the Convention. A draft text was prepared and was approved by the 68th session of the MSC in May 1997, and was then adopted by the 69th MSC session in May 1998.

It is hoped that the revised Convention entering into force on 1 January 2000 will prove more acceptable to those countries which have so far failed to ratify the Convention. To date, the SAR Convention has been ratified by 64 countries, representing 47.05 percent of world shipping tonnage


The revised SAR Convention

The revised SAR Convention clarifies the responsibilities of Governments and puts greater emphasis on the regional approach and co-ordination between maritime and aeronautical SAR operations.

The technical requirements of the SAR Convention are contained in an Annex, the revised version of which includes five chapters.


  • Chapter 1 - Terms and Definitions

This chapter updates the original chapter 1 of the same name.

  • Chapter 2 - Organization and Co-ordination

Replaces the 1979 Chapter 2 on Organization. The chapter has been re-drafted to make the responsibilities of Governments clearer. It requires Parties, either individually or in co-operation with other States, to establish basic elements of a search and rescue service, to include:

-    Legal framework
-    Assignment of a responsible authority
-    Organization of available resources
-    Communication facilities
-    Co-ordination and operational functions
-    Processes to improve the service including planning, domestic
    and international co-operative relationships and training.

Parties should establish search and rescue regions within each sea area - with the agreement of the Parties concerned. Parties then accept responsibility for providing search and rescue services for a specified area.

The chapter also describes how SAR services should be arranged and national capabilities be developed. Parties are required to establish rescue co-ordination centres and to operate them on a 24-hour basis with trained staff who have a working knowledge of English.

Parties are also required to "ensure the closest practicable co-ordination between maritime and aeronautical services".

  • Chapter 3 - Co-operation between States

Replaces the original Chapter 3 on Co-operation. Requires Parties to co-ordinate search and rescue organizations, and, where necessary, search and rescue operations with those of neighbouring States. The chapter states that unless otherwise agreed between the states concerned, a Party should authorize, subject to applicable national laws, rules and regulations, immediate entry into or over its territorial sea or territory for rescue units of other Parties solely for the purpose of search and rescue.

  • Chapter 4 - Operating Procedures

Incorporates the previous Chapters 4 (Preparatory Measures) and 5 (Operating Procedures). The chapter says that each RCC (Rescue Co-ordination Centre) and RSC (Rescue Sub-Centre) should have up-to-date information on search and rescue facilities and communications in the area and should have detailed plans for conduct of search and rescue operations. Parties - individually or in co-operation with others -should be capable of receiving distress alerts on a 24-hour basis. The regulations include procedures to be followed during an emergency and state that search and rescue activities should be co-ordinated on scene for the most effective results. The chapter says that "Search and rescue operations shall continue, when practicable, until all reasonable hope of rescuing survivors has passed".

  • Chapter 5 - Ship reporting systems

Includes recommendations on establishing ship reporting systems for search and rescue purposes, noting that existing ship reporting systems could provide adequate information for search and rescue purposes in a given area.


IMO search and rescue areas

Following the adoption of the 1979 SAR Convention, IMO's Maritime Safety Committee divided the world's oceans into 13 search and rescue areas, in each of which the countries concerned have delimited search and rescue regions for which they are responsible.

Provisional search and rescue plans for all of these areas were completed when plans for the Indian Ocean were finalised at a conference held in Fremantle, Western Australia in September 1998.

That conference had been preceded by similar meetings held in Caracas, Tokyo, Lagos, Lisbon, Cape Town, Istanbul, Seoul, Valencia and Ankara between 1984 and 1997.



Concurrently with the revision of the SAR Convention, IMO and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) jointly developed the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue (IAMSAR) Manual, published in three volumes covering Organization and Management; Mission Co-ordination; and Mobile Facilities.

The IAMSAR Manual revises and replaces the IMO Merchant Ship Search and Rescue Manual (MERSAR), first published in 1971, and the IMO Search and Rescue Manual (IMOSAR), first published in 1978.

The MERSAR Manual was the first step towards developing the 1979 SAR Convention and it provided guidance for those who, during emergencies at sea, may require assistance from others or who may be able to provide assistance themselves. In particular, it was designed to aid the master of any vessel who might be called upon to conduct SAR operations at sea for persons in distress. The manual was updated several times with the latest amendments being adopted in 1992 - they entered into force in 1993.

The second manual, the IMOSAR Manual, was adopted in l978. It was designed to help Governments to implement the SAR Convention and provided guidelines rather than requirements for a common maritime search and rescue policy, encouraging all coastal States to develop their organizations on similar lines and enabling adjacent States to co-operate and provide mutual assistance. It was also updated in 1992, with the amendments entering into force in 1993.

This manual was aligned as closely as possible with the ICAO Search and Rescue Manual to ensure a common policy and to facilitate consultation of the two manuals for administrative or operational reasons. MERSAR was also aligned, where appropriate, with IMOSAR.



The SAR Convention is complemented by the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) - an integrated communications system using satellite and terrestrial radiocommunications to ensure that no matter where a ship is in distress, aid can be dispatched.

The GMDSS was developed by IMO in close co-operation with the International Mobile Satellite Organization (Inmarsat), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and other international organizations, notably the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) and the COSPAS-SARSAT partners.

Under the GMDSS, all passenger ships and all cargo ships over 300 gross tonnage on international voyages have to carry specified satellite and radiocommunications equipment, for sending and receiving distress alerts and maritime safety information, and for general communications. The regulations governing the GMDSS are contained in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), 1974, which has been ratified by 138 countries, covering 98.36 percent of the world merchant shipping fleet by tonnage.

The GMDSS requirements are contained in the SOLAS Chapter IV on Radiocommunications and were adopted in 1988. The requirements entered into force on 1 February 1992 but provided for a phase-in period until 1 February 1999.




COSPAS-SARSAT is an international satellite-based search and rescue system, established by Canada, France, the U.S.A., and Russia. These four countries jointly helped develop a 406 MHz satellite emergency position-indicating radiobeacon (EPIRB), an element of the GMDSS designed to operate with COSPAS-SARSAT system. These automatic-activating EPIRBs are designed to transmit to a rescue co-ordination centre a vessel identification and an accurate location of the vessel from anywhere in the world.