ARCSAR's catastrophe exercise in Svalbard
At the end of August an important catastrophe exercise was arranged by the network ARCSAR (Arctic Search And Rescue) in Svalbard on our expedition ship M/S Quest. ARCSAR is an EU-funded project to establish the first formal security and preparedness network for the Arctic and the North-Atlantic. During four days they carried out different exercises, held lectures and tested new technology. On the final day a live scenario exercise took place, an exercise with an on board fire and mass evacuation. Our Operations Manager, Henrik Törnberg, was the Coordinator on board.
These were the words of Henrik the day that he got off M/S Quest in Longyearbyen, Svalbard:
"I have been a part of planning this rescue exercise for four years. A total of four days of exercises and lectures. Today was the Grand Final with Mass Rescue Operation from one of our ships. A large-scale, realistic and very instructive exercise that took place both in Svalbard, at the PolarQuest office in Gothenburg, the rescue center in Bodø and the Arctic Explorer office in Tromsø."
Henrik, who attended this event on M/S Quest?
ARCSAR is an EU-funded network with many members. Involved in this project were 20 different organizations from 12 different countries, most of which had at least one representative on board M/S Quest. We were a total of approximately 50 people on board including a journalist and a film crew. In addition to that, the ship's crew, myself and four guides from PolarQuest participated. Overall, it was an impressive collection of knowledge in Arctic maritime safety.
Read more about the organizations that participated:
Which guides from PolarQuest were on board during this trip?
Martin Berg was the expedition leader, and the guides were Zet Freiburghaus, Johan Carlsson, Miriam Vermeij.
Read more about our guides here!
How come PolarQuest was involved in this project?
About four years ago, the organization AECO contacted our CEO, Marie, and told her about this project and that they needed someone to organize the whole event. PolarQuest was naturally interested in doing so and Marie then gave me the responsibility to be charge of this project.
What is AECO?
Back in 2003, PolarQuest co-founded the organization AECO (The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators) to regulate tourism on Svalbard and promote sustainable, safe and environmentally friendly tourism in the area. Today, the organization is a prominent representative of the expedition cruise industry in the Arctic and a beacon for those who want to work with sustainable tourism. PolarQuest CEO Marie sits on the board at AECO, where she previously also was the chairman.
Learn more about AECO here:
What was your task in the project?
In this project, I had a role as coordinator, meaning that I got a core position in everything that had to do with the practicalities – planning the trip, organizing the activities on board and keeping in touch with the ship M/S Quest. You could say that PolarQuest hosted the event and that I had a very central role which meant that I was involved in most things regarding this project.
During the planning stage of the project, what kind of questions could you get?
It could be all sorts of questions, e.g. Is it doable to set up cameras on board? Is it possible to fill the ship with smoke? Would it be okay to use the ship's lifeboats? It was a big variation of very fun and different questions and challenges that were interesting to solve.
Why did it take four years to plan this project?
It didn't. The plan was that we would carry out the event in 2020, but the pandemic put a spanner in the works and caused all trips to Svalbard to be cancelled, for two full seasons. Finally, in the season of 2022 and for the first time since the pandemic, we were able to return to Svalbard and complete the project.
Could you explain a little bit about how the schedule was set up during your days on board?
We spent three full days out at sea and the last day we spent ashore in Longyearbyen. The guides along with the ship's crew had their usual role as always in any expedition cruise with PolarQuest. The expedition started as a regular trip with PolarQuest, we had a safety briefing and made landings at New London, among other places. However, the guides' lectures on board were exchanged for lectures given by the various participants within ARCSAR's network. On the third day, the great disaster exercise was carried out, which went on throughout the day. At the last day ashore in Longyearbyen we went through the entire exercise step by step, we also divided ourselves into groups and dug deeper into different concerns and problems..
Where on Svalbard was the ship located during the disaster exercise?
For logistical and security reasons, we could not place the M/S Quest in the remote location of the scenario in the exercise, but we had a simulated position and an actual position. The simulated position was outside off Phippsøya while the actual position was in the Sassenfjord, not too far from Longyearbyen. As there is no form of contact with the mobile network at Phippsøya, this was not a method of communication that we were allowed to use in the exercise. All communication included in the exercise was via VHF radio or over satellite phone.
Could you tell us more about the disaster exercise itself?
The entire exercise was based on a Mass Rescue Operation (MRO), i.e., a rescue operation involving many people. In our case, we had 50 passengers on board plus guides and crew, a total of almost 80 people. In an area like Svalbard the first one on scene, in case of an emergency, would most likely be another ship followed by a helicopter. Therefore, we practiced so-called ship-to-ship rescue.
The scenario was that at eight o'clock in the morning, the fire alarm went off because of a fire that had broken out in the engine room on board the M/S Quest. To make the exercise feel all as lifelike as possible, everyone on board had a specific role to play- as a panicked passenger or a person who suffered an injury for example. To make things even more authentic, they had theatrical make up put on.
M/S Quest's regular crew was also involved in various ways. We wanted to test everything from the rescue operation, new technology and the human factor. We had a gathering up in the lounge and we launched M/S Quest's own lifeboats. The passengers on M/S Quest were all to be evacuated and this was done by lifeboats and life rafts to the Coast Guard's ship as well as through a helicopter. Smoke divers from the Coast Guard also came on board to reinforce the smoke diving actions made by the ship's own crew. A lot of new technologies were also tested such as thermal imaging cameras from drones, sending distress signals from small handheld tracking devices to satellites and using mobile signals to count and track people.
What task did you have during the exercise itself?
I was not involved in the actual exercise, but I drove one of the "real" Zodiac boats. We had to be prepared for different scenarios in case something would go wrong in real life, and a person would fall into the water for example.
The staff here at the PolarQuest head office in Gothenburg were also involved on this day, can you explain how?
The office in Gothenburg was contacted by phone by various parties when the alarm went off, the rescue center in Bodø were the first ones to call. After that phone call, the exercise was in full swing even in the office where various calls came in from shipowners and even an inquisitive journalist. The staff at the office devoted the whole day to this exercise to see through our routines, preparedness and actions. This was a very useful and instructive exercise, both for our staff in here Gothenburg and for the staff out in the field.
Why was this project carried out?
A big reason was to increase the cooperation between all parties and to build trust between tourist ships, rescue stations, etc. We wanted to examine how we work, how do we collaborate, how are we organized and what common resources are there. We also wanted to test new technology for search, alarm and rescue.
Was the project successful and did you feel that you learned a lot from it?
It was all very successful. I was a little nervous before, because I knew that there were many components that would work together and unite, but the weather was on our side and all the collaborations worked excellently. I learned a lot more than I could have imagined.
Do you know if there are any plans for another project like this in the future?
I know that there is a strong will to continue with such collaborative exercises in the Arctic, but there are no concrete plans yet. After all, the first step is to show the usefulness of this exercise and then try to arrange funding for continuation. Maybe it will then be in some other place than Svalbard, Arctic Canada, Iceland, the Faroe Islands or Greenland for example?
Learn more about M/S Quest.
Learn more about ARCSAR:
Articles on ARCSAR disaster exercise:
Video from Sjøforsvaret about ARCSAR disaster exercise:
The main rescue center in Bodø:
Smith and Myers:
Henrik TörnbergOperations Manager firstname.lastname@example.org
Since 1999, we have taken travellers on once-in-a-lifetime trips to Svalbard. From May to September our three small expedition ships, carrying only 12 and 51 passengers, explore this magnificent Arctic archipelago. Unpredictability and flexibility are the main keywords when you travel with PolarQuest as the exact route depends on weather, ice conditions and wildlife encounters. Sometimes you might be woken up in the middle of the night if a polar bear has been spotted on the ice.