Interview: Spain’s Salvage Director Jose Luis Garcia Lena Talks Maritime Rescue

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August 21, 2019

The Oleg Naydenov seen on fire after being towed out to sea off the Canary Islands in April 2015. Photo: Salvamento Maritimo

Interview by Paul González-Morgan (Marine Strategy) – Jose Luis Garcia Lena is Director of Spain’s Salvage and Maritime Safety Society (SASEMAR), known as “Salvamento Maritimo” (SM), mainly dedicated to the protection of life at sea. Created in 1992 by the Law of State Ports Authority and Merchant Marine, it became operational in 1993, recently celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Garcia Lena is a naval engineer from the Polytechnic University of Madrid and holds a Masters in Leadership and Public Management, by the Menendez Pelayo International University. He has held the position of Deputy Director General of Safety, Pollution and Maritime Inspection in the General Directorate of the Merchant Marine, from May 2016 until his appointment as Director of SASEMAR. Previously, and since joining the body of naval engineers of the Ministry in 2006, he had held other positions of responsibility such as Deputy Director General of Maritime Inspection, Head of Technology & Technical Support Area and Head of Service and Marine Inspector. He previously worked outside the Administration in companies linked to the sector such as Spanish Shipyards.

In April 2019 you were appointed by the Spanish Ministry of Development, Director of SM. How has your past experience and knowledge helped you in your role?

Before I took on my current position, I would follow every step, every emergency and every marine rescue as I was Deputy Director General of Security, Pollution and Maritime Inspection in the General Directorate of the Merchant Marine, and prior to this I had been working in other positions in the same organization for many years. As you know, SM is the operational arm of the General Directorate of the Merchant Marine, and salvage workers act in coordination with the officers of the General Directorate in all rescues and emergencies, so I knew and had already worked with SM on many occasions. I have also been part of the Board of Directors of SM since May 2016, so I was well aware of the impressive work done by the team. The organization I manage is complex, as it covers both administrative issues and very technical matters. Ever since I started working, I have been backed by great professionals with many years of experience.

Please tell us about your main duties as Head of SM:

SM is an organization that we hear about on a daily basis in the media, however, it is a great unknown. Few people know that it belongs to the Spanish Ministry of Development. It was created by the current Spanish Minister Josep Borrell in 1993 and has just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Few organizations can say that they are dedicated to something as beautiful and important for people as protecting their lives when they are in danger at sea, working for clean seas and controlling the traffic of ships to ensure maritime safety. To understand what SM is really about, I invite you to close your eyes, imagine that you are in the middle of a storm at sea, your boat is sinking, and you fall overboard. And in the middle of that desperate situation, a friendly hand appears to rescue you and takes you back to your family — that is SM.

An organization of which as a country, and I in particular as a Director, we can really be proud of, according to feedback received by seafarers and people that have been involved in rescue

Years ago before this body even existed, the chances of mere incidents ending up in emergencies were much greater. Equally, it was less probable that a response/rescue operation would end successfully.

The increase of professionals, training, media, technology, designs, procedures, improvements…, it has been impressive in just 25 years. That has been and is SM, the guarantee of having the best possible response to an emergency at sea. And my role is to lead this organization with great professionals in each field, from center coordinators, maritime and aircrew, specialized diving technicians, clerks, etc.

The R area is very extensive, covering more than 1.5 million km2. How do you manage the resources you currently have?

As you point out, Spain is entrusted by way of international conventions the search and rescue of a marine area of 1.5 million km2. It is an enormous task, as the surveillance and rescue is actually equivalent to 3 times Spain. As for the management of resources, our provision is distributed throughout the national territory with the most advanced technology, to which we must add that of the collaborating agencies, as well as any vessel that exists in the area, which at any given time can become the fastest option to conduct a rescue.

SM in Spain is a global benchmark. We have a large number of resources deployed throughout the national territory, specifically: 20 rescue coordination centres, 87 sea and air units, 6 strategic bases with divers and response equipment designed for great depths in two of them; and I do not want to forget the Jovellanos Centre, located in Asturias, which is a reference in training for both our professionals and for external people interested in training in the field of maritime safety .

But the important thing -and what really needs to be valued- is the work of the more than 1,600 professionals we have: staff from control towers, the crews of our ships, planes and helicopters…, work to be appreciated, as these jobs require great professionalism.

What is the National Maritime Rescue Plan?

The Ministry of Development is working on the elaboration of an ambitious “National Plan for Special Services for the Rescue of Human Life at Sea and for the Fight Against Pollution of the Marine Environment”. Among the objectives of the Plan is to coordinate the actions of the different resources capable of carrying out search operations, the rescue of human lives and the fight against marine pollution, belonging to the various Administrations, as well as public and private institutions. This Plan also includes the actions and investments planned for the years 2019, 2020 and 2021. It is currently in the process of being approved by Cabinet Ministers. The Plan is based on the new European Maritime Transport Strategy, focusing on three areas: effectiveness and efficiency, decarbonization and digitalization.

What are the action protocols following an emergency call at sea?

Every emergency must have a quick response to ensure success in its resolution. Although it is practically impossible for two identical emergencies to occur, which may be resolved by applying an identical response for both, we can establish an order of operations planning to serve as a general guide, as emergencies at sea tend to evolve following the same stages or patterns that are common to all incidents, and serve as a basis for organizing the most appropriate response operation. This way, from the moment that the possibility of an emergency exists, the coordination centers must initiate a response process that can be established in several common phases.

The first stage would be receiving the alert, which can reach the coordinating centers in different ways, both traditional and automatic. Then, the next phase consists of the deployment of resources, air and sea, and the planning of the operation to achieve maximum efficiency. The coordination is carried out by the Rescue Coordination Centres, in conjunction with the Maritime Authority of the General Directorate of the Merchant Marine, and the maritime or aerial teams responsible for carrying out the search and rescue operations whose main objective is to safeguard human life, and secondly assisting to save the vessel if necessary. The operation continues until the rescue actions from the Coordination Centre are “concluded and the units return to base. Every Life Saved
Is Our Greatest Reward

There are also operations in which, although the life of people is not at risk, there may be a risk of pollution of the marine environment. In those cases, SM acts in a similar way, with the aim of preventing the pollution of our seas.

What are the challenges in preventing and fighting against pollution of the marine environment?

Aerial surveillance of our seas is an essential tool to prevent pollution by ships in navigation. SM does intensive surveillance work with its airplanes and European satellites to ensure that ships do not pollute. Each year we monitor the equivalent of 250 times the Spanish territory.

In addition to the surveillance work of our airplanes and satellites, which is a preventive task, we combat the pollution spills that are also detected by our air or sea resources. To this effect we count on collection vessels specially designed to address this type of pollution such as multi-purpose rescue and pollution control vessels, which are part of the maritime units distributed along the entire Spanish coast. These ships also act in the event of an incident or shipwreck, which may involve pollution.

Apart from this, we also carry out a number of activities by raising community awareness to preserve the environment, such as the activation of the #mareslimpios (“clean seas”) campaign. Please allow me to share with your readers, should they wish to apply, that we have just presented the ODS14 SM awards to reward all those initiatives that have or are contributing to the improvement and conservation of our seas. The prize conditions are available on our website.

What kind of training is provided by the Jovellanos Center?

Firstly, let me highlight that it is a center of reference at a European level as it covers maritime training, security, fire fighting, etc.. It is a center for diversified training in many fields related to the safety of life at sea and the fight against pollution of the seas.

Designed from a comprehensive service perspective, it is equipped with modern resources and facilities and highly qualified technical and specialist staff. It has become a key part of support for the training duties of the National Maritime Safety and Rescue Plan.

The center’s main function is to provide comprehensive training in maritime, port and industrial security, prevention of occupational hazards and the fight against pollution, addressed primarily to the personnel of SM, as I mentioned earlier, and also to professionals in the maritime sector, and other groups with special security and pollution control needs. The rest of its activity revolves around the following specific areas: technical assistance for projects, studies and emergency plans; the development of tests and the homologation of personal protection equipment and rescue devices (life jackets, floats, rafts …) and the organisation and participation in conferences and seminars as well as cooperation and research in European and national projects.

What advice would you give to those new sailors in order to improve their security?

New sailors have to be aware that the marine environment can be dangerous, especially if they don’t have much experience. Taking all precautions is never an overstatement. In addition to having adequate training, try to achieve a position of “zero risk”, with a focus on prevention.

On our website and through our social networks we give simple daily advice to people who approach the sea in different activities. Anyway, when everything else fails, SM will always be alert to protect human life at sea, night and day, so knowing the protocols and ways to ask for our help is also a way of prevention.

What points would you highlight about the planning and strategy for the next 12 months?

We want to continue being a competitive service, guaranteeing the protection of the marine environment, focusing on digitalization and innovation. We understand that we are, that is why we want to maintain our strengths, exploit the new technological opportunities that arise and correct the weaknesses that may emerge. The strategy to follow, defined in the National Plan Draft, is aligned with the EU Maritime Transport Policy, defined until 2020 in the Valletta Ministerial Declaration.

The strategy follows three axes, which are broken down into lines and initiatives:

  1. In the field of competitiveness, we are aware that a public rescue service and the fight against pollution implies offering effective and efficient services. This, among other measures, will lead us to the incorporation of new types of means such as drones, as well as to the renewal of the current fleet, to guarantee the best resources. The continuous training of professionals and suitable coordination with appropriate action plans and procedures are also part of this axis.
  2. The axis of decarbonization and sustainability, the current system of prevention, rescue and pollution control is a solid system committed to sustainable development. Nevertheless, new challenges arise due to technological improvements, legal requirements, new commitments and an increasingly demanding society, which require continuing and expanding the service to new challenges. These new challenges have -as their ultimate goal- a cleaner marine environment. For example, the viability of tugboats with LNG and the reduction of air pollution from the fleet will be studied.
  3. The rescue, pollution control and maritime traffic control system requires digitalisation that allows an adequate management of the huge volume of information and real-time communication between all the elements that make up the system. Meanwhile, innovation is the engine that allows incorporating new capabilities to improve services. An example of this is the I-SAR project in which a preliminary consultation has been made to the market, since there are incipient technologies that have possibilities of being applied in these areas, such as the use of drones, the development of detection sensors or progress in operational oceanography.

Do you remember a particular rescue operation that you would like to share with us?

Recently, in June we carried out a complex rescue of the 5 crew members of a sailboat in the middle of a severe storm in Galicia. It happened 85 miles northwest of A Coruña. At the time in the area there were very rough seas with waves of between four and six meters and winds of 65 knots (120 km/h). In the midst of this severe storm, the Helimer 401 helicopter crew of A Coruña rescued these 5 people. The rescue was very complex as S/Y LoaZour was swaying spectacularly as it was completely adrift. Faced with this situation, the rescuer could not descend to the actual ship. Finally, the 5 crew were rescued one by one from the sea and later transferred to Alvedro in good condition. They publicly thanked our work and the fact that we saved their lives. Every life saved is our greatest reward.

This video recorded by our helicopter team shows how complicated the operation was: 

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