Mayday, mayday, mayday …
Alerting the crew
If a lifeboat is required then Solent Coastguard sets the pagers off and contacts the Lifeboat Operations Manager (LOM) or Deputy Launching Authority (DLA) and requests the launch of the lifeboat. Once the LOM/DLA gives permission to launch the lifeboat, the crew and helpers are then alerted by pager. The RNLI uses its own Call Out and Communications System (COACS).
When the pagers go off the lifeboat crew may be at home, out shopping, at work or even asleep, and when they hear the pager they stop what they’re doing and rush to the lifeboat station as quickly, but as safely, as possible. They may jump into their cars or even run down to the station but bikes, buggies and boats have all been used to get crew and shore helpers to the station.
The number of crew on a lifeboat depends on which lifeboat is launched – generally four crew are needed on the Atlantic 85 and six crew on the Tyne class lifeboat. The Lifeboat Operations Manager may decide to launch both boats.
The crew then get kitted up in their protective clothing. For ALB lifeboat crew this means yellow waterproof trousers and jacket, yellow wellies, lifejacket and helmet. For the inshore lifeboat crew they wear a drysuit (with yellow wellies attached), lifejackets and helmet. Optional items include gloves and woolly bears (thermal undersuits) for colder weather.
Normally the lifeboats launch within 8 minutes but you never know how long you will be out for when the pager goes off – it can be 30 minutes or even 12 hours. You can sometimes go out for a shout only 230m away from the station or you can go out 23 miles from home.
Once the lifeboat has been launched the rescue starts in earnest. The radio operator talks to the Coastguard on the radio and asks them for an update of the situation and also passes on details of who is onboard the lifeboat. Each lifeboat crew member has a number and the Coastguard stations in each area have lists of all their names and numbers for each station.
All the radio operator needs to do is to pass on the crew numbers to the Coastguard: ‘Crew numbers 3, 11, and 29 onboard.’ With so many families and people with the same surnames it means that there can be no confusion about who is going out and also it saves trying to spell some of the more difficult names!
The need to pass on the numbers is, of course, something that no one wants to think about. If there is an injury or worse, a death, everyone will quickly know who is on the lifeboat.
The initial contact with the Coastguard provides the crew with some details about the incident – what the casualty is, where it is, how many people are involved, whether anyone has been injured and whether they are likely to need medical attention.
If it’s going to be a long shout the crew will even put on the water heater (on an all-weather lifeboat) so they can make cups of tea or soup later on, both for the survivors and themselves.
Arriving on scene the crew lets the Coastguard know and then checks out the situation and assesses what they need to do and talks to the casualty if possible. What might seem like a straightforward rescue to the lifeboat crew can be a frightening experience for the people involved and so it’s important for the crew to provide a friendly face and to reassure them that they will do all they can to sort the situation out.
Equally for the lifeboat crew, as well as the people involved, it can be a tense and dramatic time and the coxswain/helmsman and crew have to make quick and effective decisions. Often a great deal of courage, determination, skill, leadership, agility and perseverance is required to carry out a successful rescue.
The rescue can sometimes take just a few minutes, or it can take several hours. However long it takes, the crews communicate with each other and the Coastguard, and work together towards a successful outcome.
Some rescues rely on the teamwork of lifeboat and helicopter crews or other rescue teams and when Poole lifeboat volunteers answer the call for help, a host of other state and independent bodies is ready in support.
Solent Coastguard (part of HM Coastguard) coordinates the rescues and in Poole Bay and Poole Harbour area.
Training exercises are organised so that crews become used to working with other search and rescue (SAR) teams.
After the rescue is over and the lifeboat has been brought back to the station it has to be washed outside and cleaned inside (especially after a really rough shout – yuk!). All the equipment is checked and any items replaced or restocked. The fuel tank is filled and the boat is left ready for the next launch – which could be tomorrow or not for another few weeks. Whenever it happens, the lifeboats, the crew, shore helpers and everyone involved will be ready.