SAR Convention

Adoption: 27 April 1979
Entry into force: 22 June 1985


The 1979 Convention, adopted at a Conference in Hamburg, 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 coordinated by a SAR organization and, when necessary, by cooperation 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 (SOLAS), 1974), 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.

The technical requirements of the SAR Convention are contained in an Annex, which was divided into five chapters. Parties to the Convention are required to ensure that arrangements are made for the provision of adequate SAR services in their coastal waters.

Parties are encouraged to enter into SAR agreements with neighbouring States involving the establishment of SAR regions, the pooling of facilities, establishment of common procedures, training and liaison visits. The Convention states that Parties should take measures to expedite entry into its territorial waters of rescue units from other Parties.

The Convention then goes on to establish preparatory measures which should be taken, including the establishment of rescue coordination centres and subcentres. It outlines operating procedures to be followed in the event of emergencies or alerts and during SAR operations. This includes the designation of an on-scene coordinator and his duties.

Parties to the Convention may establish ship reporting systems to facilitate search and rescue operations, under which ships report their position to, for example, a coast radio station. This enables the interval between the loss of contact with a vessel and the initiation of search operations to be reduced. It also helps to permit the rapid determination of vessels which may be called upon to provide assistance including medical help when required.

Amendment Procedure

The SAR Convention allowed for amendments to the technical Annex to be adopted by a conference of Parties or by IMO's Maritime Safety Committee, expanded to include all Parties, some of whom may not be members of the Organization. Amendments to the SAR Convention enter into force on a specified date unless objections are received from a required number of Parties.

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 finalized at a conference held in Fremantle, Western Australia in September 1998.

Revision of SAR Convention

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. 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 Party to the Convention;
  • need to further harmonize the IMO and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) SAR provisions; and
  • inconsistent use of Convention terminology and phraseology.

IMO's Sub-Committee on Radiocommunications and Search and Rescue (COMSAR) was requested to revise the technical Annex of 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 sixty-ninth session of MSC in May 1998.

The 1998 amendments

Adopted: 18 May 1998
Entry into force: 1 January 2000

The revised technical Annex of the 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 revised Annex 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 cooperation 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; and
  • 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 coordination 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 - Cooperation between States

Replaces the original chapter 3 on Cooperation.

Requires Parties to coordinate 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 Coordination 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 cooperation 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.


Concurrently with the revision of the SAR Convention, the 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 Coordination; and Mobile Facilities.

2004 amendments - Persons in distress at sea

Adoption: May 2004
Entry into force: 1 July 2006

The amendments to the Annex to the Convention include:

  • addition of a new paragraph in chapter 2 (Organization and co-ordination) relating to definition of persons in distress;
  • new paragraphs in chapter 3 (Co-operation between States) relating to assistance to the master in delivering persons rescued at sea to a place of safety; and
  • a new paragraph in chapter 4 (Operating procedures) relating to rescue co- ordination centres initiating the process of identifying the most appropriate places for disembarking persons found in distress at sea.

Recognizing the need to address the treatment of persons rescued at sea, at seventy-eighth session of the Maritime Safety Committee in 2004, important amendments were made to SOLAS Convention and SAR Convention.  MSC 78 also adopted the Guidelines on the treatment of persons rescued at sea (resolution MSC.167(78)). See Unsafe mixed migration by sea for further details.