International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue
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
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 (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 co-ordination
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 commander
and his duties.
Parties to the Convention are required to establish ship reporting
systems, under which ships report their position to 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
The SAR Convention allowed for amendments to the technical Annex to
be adopted by a Conference of STCW Parties or by IMO's Maritime
Safety Committee, expanded to include all Contracting 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
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
experiences of States
which had implemented the Convention;
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 Radio-Communications 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 69th MSC
session 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 co-operation with other
States, to establish basic elements of a search and rescue service,
assignment of a
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
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
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
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.
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 Co-ordination; and Mobile
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 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.
- persons in distress at sea
Adoption: May 2004 Entry
into force: 1 July 2006
The amendments to the Annex to the Convention
addition of a new
paragraph in chapter 2 (Organization and
co-ordination) relating to definition of persons in
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.