Over the course of Tuesday, February 8, and Wednesday, February 9, the Spanish Ministry for Transport, Mobility and the Urban Agenda (MITMA) is staging an innovative virtual drill exercise involving the participation of dozens of technicians and specialists from different institutions. This large-scale exercise, defined as a Mass Rescue Operation (MRO), will be staged at the Jovellanos Maritime Safety Centre, and will simulate the evacuation of more than 450 people, including passengers and crew, from a ferry which is on fire, not under command and 4 miles from the port of Bilbao.
In this tabletop drill, instead of conducting a real operation, the simulators of the Jovellanos Centre will be used to perform all the necessary tasks. The novelty, with respect to other exercises of this type, is that, for the first time, the bridge and emergency simulators of the Centre, an international reference in rescue and maritime safety training, will be used simultaneously.
The drill will involve the rescue of passengers and crew, extinguishing a fire, the rescue of 3 crew members who have fallen into the water and the activation of the National Maritime Pollution Plan at level 2, in response to a possible spill of hazardous substances.
Personnel from the Harbour Master’s Office (General Directorate of the Merchant Marine, MITMA), Maritime Rescue, the Emergency and Meteorological Areas of the Basque Government Department of Security, the Government Sub-delegation in Bizkaia, the Bilbao Port Authority, the Civil Guard, the Ertzaintza, the MITMA Emergency, Security and Crisis Management Unit and the Red Cross, among others, will all be taking part.
In the early hours of the morning of the 8th, at around 1.00 a.m., the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Bilbao will be informed of a fire on deck number 3 of a Brittany Ferries ferry which has left Bilbao bound for Portsmouth, is 4 miles from the port and is not under command.
The fire cannot be controlled using the ship’s systems and spreads, aided and abetted by the wind and the sea conditions (swell to heavy swell). The ship’s captain orders the evacuation of the 350 passengers and most of the 101 crew in the lifeboats. In addition, three crew members, alerted by the fire, fall overboard, and the ferry is carrying hazardous goods.
The procedure to evacuate the people on board, directed by the harbour master, is activated. The resources available for this include a private vessel, the Buenas Intenciones, which will collaborate in the rescue of those evacuated in lifeboats to take them to land. At the same time, the
search for the missing persons is conducted and work continues to put out the fire. Afterwards, the ship is ordered to be towed to the port of refuge, in the port of Bilbao, and the number of rescued persons is counted, which is fundamental in this case.
The participation of different organisations will enable and require a coordinated effort in an event of this magnitude. In this exercise, the Bay of Biscay Plan will be activated in the alert phase, the National Maritime Pollution Plan will be activated at level 2, due to the possible spillage of hazardous materials into the sea, SOS DEIAK will implement the Mass Casualty Incident (MCI) protocol and the port of Bilbao will activate its Self-Protection Plan and, where appropriate, the Internal Maritime Plan for accidental marine pollution.
Health care will also be factored in, with those requiring treatment being transferred to hospital by helicopter and ambulances, and psychosocial care provided for the victims and their families to deal with the effects of trauma caused by this emergency.
Communication management and an evaluation of the actions undertaken will complete the exercise.
Unlike the more standard drills (search and rescue operations, or SAR), MRO exercises are less common, but that does not mean that such emergencies do not frequently occur worldwide. Consequently, there is a clear need to put into practice the plans foreseen for this type of operation and to detect and analyse possible errors in coordination and effectiveness in the response, which is much more reflective in the case of a tabletop drill.