Following a series of search-and-rescue (SAR) operations in the past decade that ended tragically, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation challenged the service to define a better way forward. “To put it simply, each SAR case represents a life on the line. . . . We must ensure that the hand extended to those in distress is as strong as it can possibly be. And I say that we can do better, and we will,” stated Representative Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) during the September 2009 hearing.
The Coast Guard subsequently implemented significant changes to its SAR oversight policy. In one noteworthy change in 2011, the Coast Guard defined SAR mission coordinator (SMC)—whose responsibility is mission oversight—as a specific individual ultimately accountable for the execution of a SAR case. This required the creation of a cadre of proficient and accountable SAR professionals. However, limitations on who could serve as SMC, failure to address fatigue, and initial discouragement of on-call duty rotations increased the risk of mistakes.
The Policy on SAR Mission Coordinator and Active Search Suspended was revised in 2013 to enable unit-level commanders to address risk by expanding the number of SMC-eligible candidates within a command. A recent survey of currently assigned SMCs confirms that not all field commanders have seized the opportunity. Several unit commanders choose to maintain a small cadre of SMCs with limited or no rotation. Until fatigue is no longer stigmatized and is meaningfully acknowledged and addressed in policy, the service remains at risk of SAR planning mistakes.
Across the U.S. Coast Guard, there are 37 field commands, or sectors, and 9 higher-level units, or districts, with SAR coordination responsibilities. Caseloads vary in complexity and quantity, ranging from 100 to more than 1,000 SAR cases annually. Cases occur around the clock and some run for multiple days. With the implementation of the first policy change, most units designated very few SMCs, typically not more than three.
At many units, only one person—frequently the sector department head responsible for response operations or the district chief of incident management—holds the position for the bulk of a multiyear tour of 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all while acting as an O-5 or O-6 level department head. The constant on-call status is highly demanding but accepted as part of the job. Fatigue is privately acknowledged but not satisfactorily addressed.
The 2013 policy provided the option for commands to develop a rotation with an expanded roster of talented SMC candidates. The optional tone of the policy resulted in inconsistent application throughout the Coast Guard. A new policy update that implements fatigue standards across the service and mandates a duty rotation is necessary.
For example, the service must establish and implement mandatory fatigue standards for on-call SMCs. There is a cultural bias to equate admitting fatigue with weakness or laziness. Clearly articulated standards will remove the subjectivity and stigma against personal acknowledgement of fatigue. The service’s aviation and boat communities have long used fatigue standards to protect their operators and ensure unit readiness. The Coast Guard must now apply similar standards to SMCs.
The policy update must also establish duty limits with currency maintenance standards. A duty rotation should be required to ensure no one individual is serving in the SMC role indefinitely. It makes sense to share this heavy responsibility with a small, well-qualified bench. Going forward, the service must also implement SMC currency standards with mandatory watch minimums to ensure proficiency. In a positive step, a nascent SMC training course has been rolled out.
Coast Guard policy makers should act now to better acknowledge the risks associated with fatigue by issuing clear guidance that strongly encourages field commanders to implement rotations, pays careful attention to fatigue levels among their SMCs, and ensures that their SMCs are not only qualified but well rested. Resources should be committed to developing specific fatigue standards for SMCs. Without such changes, the Coast Guard increases the risk of high-consequence fatigue-related mistakes.