How best to train for a maritime crisis

Profiles of Norwegian science

maritime crisis

Photo: Kystverket, NCA / Forsvaret
Accidents happen, like the collision of KNM Helge Ingstad, shown here listing to one side before it eventually sank. Preparing for them can be critical to ensuring that, as in this instance, no one is seriously injured or killed.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

In 2018, who would expect a shipping collision in Norway, especially with excellent visibility? On Nov. 10, near Bergen, the Royal Norwegian Navy’s frigate Helge Ingstad collided with the giant, loaded oil tanker Sola TS and sank. The 137 navy crew members made it off their ship, fortunately with no fires, major leaks, critical injuries, or deaths.

This crash proves the need to be prepared for anything. Science contributes by supporting plans, training, and monitoring. A group of Norwegian researchers recently evaluated a major training exercise for a ship catastrophe off of Norway’s northern coastline.

Based at University College of Southeast Norway in Kongsberg and Nord Universitet in Bodø, the team was Leif Inge Magnussen, Eric Carlstrøm, Jarle Løwe Sørensen, Glenn-Egil Torgersen, Erlend Fritjof Hagenes, and Elsa Kristiansen. They observed the exercise, took photos, and conducted an internet-based survey with several dozen participants. Following data analysis, they published their findings and recommendations earlier this year in the journal Disaster Prevention and Management.

The full-day exercise they researched covered a scenario of a ship fire off Bodø’s coast. The vessel had to be evacuated, so civilian and military helicopters leapt into the fray. The personnel knew that they had to worry about the possibilities of toxic fumes as the ship burned.

Rescuers arriving at the ship were prepared for casualties of all sorts. They treated the wounded during the evacuation, prepping them for handover to medical staff on land.

Those involved had to be ready to solve many problems. How would the local hospital cope? Would patients need to be transferred beyond Bodø? How would next-of-kin be identified and notified? How would police be involved for any stowaways or possible criminal activity?

Further difficulties could emerge during the day. As part of the scenario, the participants contended with one of the helicopters leaking fuel. Other possibilities could have been a helicopter crashing, adverse weather, resistance by casualties to being rescued (perhaps to cover up unlawful actions), or a ship-board explosion perhaps even from terrorism.

The researchers looked specifically at how those involved in the exercise worked together and their perceptions of the cooperation. Did the exercise help them in learning and training? Should the scenario and its implementation be improved? Ultimately, how could the knowledge and experience support improvements in rescuing capabilities?

The results and discussion were balanced. Collaboration was perceived to be high. Learning and usefulness displayed mixed views, indicating the need for improving these areas. The analysis also highlighted the need for increased room for improvising during training, which would reflect better what happens in real life.

One suggestion from the research is that perhaps participants felt less engaged due to the scale and complications of the scenario. They seemed to feel that the setup did not match their day-to-day needs or experiences.

Better communicating the importance of being ready for anything might have led to an improved response. Major incidents are rare. Most rescuers deal with mainly highly confined situations where just a few people are affected. Yet an air crash or ship sinking could happen at any time in any weather. Being prepared for multiple, simultaneous incidents, in sequence or in parallel, should be an essential part of the rescue mindset.

The researchers, though, articulate a powerful point that realistic complexity is not necessary for exercises. Simplifying can help to identify basic, straightforward problems that are easy to solve, leading to a big impact. These might be masked in larger-scale, more realistic scenarios.

Another aspect is that the exercise focused on Norwegian agencies. International involvement and interest are often prominent in disasters. Many cargo vessels employ international crews. Cruise ships entertain passengers from around the world. A ship fire near Norwegian coasts could call on support from Denmark, Sweden, Russia, or any nearby ship from any country.

Disaster simulations require an immense amount of effort to organize and run. Involving scientists from the beginning to observe and analyze the set-up, process, and outcomes is essential for understanding how to best prepare rescue personnel, equipment, and services.

Then, if prevention fails as with the Helge Ingstad, we will be ready for rescue. In the meantime, the Royal Norwegian Navy has four other frigates.

The full paper is: Magnussen, L.I. et al. 2018. “Learning and usefulness stemming from collaboration in a maritime crisis management exercise in Northern Norway,” Disaster Prevention and Management, volume 27, issue 1:

arch.This article originally appeared in the December 28, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.

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