Hundreds of rescue personnel from Finland and Sweden, medical staff and volunteers are taking part in a large scale search and rescue drill called ‘Sommarö’ off the coast of Vaasa today.
A fire has broken out on the parking deck of a passenger ship sailing from Vaasa to Umeå in Sweden. The smoke is thick. The fire is contained but not fully extinguished. It spreads to containers of hazardous material, releasing toxic fumes.
Some passengers and crew members breath in the gas and need to be evacuated by helicopter – the problem is, it could take hours for the nearest Finnish helicopter to arrive, so the Coast Guard must call to Sweden for urgent help.
Meanwhile, the captain decides to abandon ship. It’s drifting in the Merenkurkku – which means literally the ‘Throat of the Sea’ – the narrowest part of the Gulf of Bothnia between Finland and Sweden, where thousands of archipelago islands constrict the waterways, making navigation treacherous.
Soon, search and rescue teams arrive to pick up the passengers and take them to a Coast Guard station where warm blankets and hot drinks are waiting for them.
It might sound like a scary scenario, but it’s as realistic as possible for all the players involved in today’s rescue rehearsal.
“This is our annual disaster exercise” Samu Hiljanen, Head of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre MRCC in Turku tells News Now Finland.
“There’s around 350 personnel and about 130 students, who are playing the parts of those passengers we are trying to save” he explains.
Big Logistics Operation
Operation Sommarö is a huge logistical undertaking. There’s an off-shore patrol vessel belonging to the Finnish Coast Guard, and an equivalent vessel from Sweden. There’s also three more patrol boats from the Finnish Coast Guard, and two other patrol boats from the Finnish lifeboat society. Plus the crew of the ship at the centre of the scenario; Vaasa police and rescue personnel; medical staff at Vaasa Hospital where some of the ‘injured’ passengers will be taken; and Red Cross volunteers.
“I have to say that for example Vaasa is quite a remote area, there is not so many rescue units in Finland or Sweden too, that’s why we have to share our units and do these kind of exercises” says Hiljanen.
“For example we don’t have even a helicopter near Vaasa at all, and the closest one from Finland is in Turku and Roveniemi and both will take two hours to Vaasa. But Umeå has a helicopter with 15 minutes readiness”.
Hiljanen explains that the Umeå helicopter is called out by the Finns a couple of times each year.
No matter how realistic the scenario planning for the operation might be, it can never be a totally accurate depiction of a real life disaster.
“With these kind of exercises, the problem from our side is that they’re not big enough” says Niki Haake of the Finnish Red Cross.
“If the situation is small, they don’t really need our volunteers. But when it’s big enough, a real life situation, then they will need us and it’s going to be very chaotic. You can’t make this happen in an exercise” he says.
For set-piece rescue drills like Sommarö, everything is planned in advance. So the hospital teams are waiting to receive patients. The helicopter is on standby. The Coast Guard and lifeboat vessels are already in the area. And Red Cross and local Rescue Department would already have set up their reception centres with blankets, hot coffee and food for the ‘survivors’.
While it’s good for training, it would be nothing like a real disaster.
“Every time there is a drill, you take care of your business before […] it’s quite well organised” says Haake.
“So the problem is the real thing is not like that – it’s everything else! People don’t come to the right place, and information is not complete”.
In a real life large scale disaster the Red Cross and volunteers would come to look after the basic needs of the victims – like providing blankets, warm shelter in winter, food, and psycho-social help if anyone is suffering from trauma.
“It’s good to train the basic elements” says Finnish Red Cross project planner Niki Haake.
“But it’s difficult for volunteer organisations to practice their part, because it’s not really how it would be when a big situation arises”.