NIK about maritime rescue system

The Baltic Sea is one of the busiest seas in the world. That is why, the number of life-threatening events on the sea is growing. An efficient maritime rescue system has recently become increasingly important for the Polish state.

The maritime rescue system covers two groups of tasks:

  • search and rescue of human life on the sea,
  • combating threats and pollutions on the sea.

These tasks are mainly performed by the Maritime Search and Rescue Service (SAR). In search and rescue operations SAR cooperates with the Navy, the Border Guard, the State Fire Service, the Police, medical services, the Volunteer Water Rescue Service and others. In case of threats related to sea pollution, SAR also cooperates with maritime offices, provincial crisis management centres, captain of the port departments and other units, depending on the needs. SAR also cooperates with foreign services. The whole system reports to the Minister of Maritime Economy. In case of life rescue, the search and rescue regions (SRR) are defined in bilateral agreements with Germany, Sweden and Russia. In case of threats related to sea pollutions, SAR operates in sea areas of the Republic of Poland.

All in all, SAR has 46 water drafts at its disposal. The oldest ship was built in 1988. Most of them came into service in the late 1990s and at the beginning of the 21st century. Jet skis have come into service since 2018. Besides, SAR has 12 water drafts located along the coast.

The number of SAR actions, mainly rescue operations on the sea, has been growing systematically. According to the Police, 85 persons drowned in the sea in 2018-2020. The SAR rescuers reported rescuing 146 persons.

Rescue operations carried out by SAR in 2015–2021 (the first and second quarters)

Formal principles are in place but long-term programme is missing

The operating principles of the maritime rescue system have been set out in documents approved by the Minister, including plans and bylaws. Besides, the Minister initiated amendments to the Maritime Safety Act, thus enabling SAR to take measures to protect property. He also made the SAR working system more flexible. Expenditures on SAR employees’ salaries have been increased systematically. Also new areas and threats on the sea were analysed in terms of new equipment purchases and possible changes in procedures. Within eight months, though, the Minister failed to provide the SAR Director with comments to the National Plan on Combating Threats and Pollutions of the Sea Environment. The plan is the key document defining the tasks of entities responsible for eliminating sea pollutions. NIK considered that improper. Also the long-term programme for 2018-2023 “Strengthening SAR Service to respond to threats to human life and natural environment on the sea”. The Programme was not positively evaluated by the Minister of Finance and works on the Programme were suspended. Meanwhile, SAR equipment is getting obsolete. That is why, investments from annual budgets were made, at least to a limited extent. In 2020, the Minister started works on the new development plan until 2029. The draft plan was not submitted by the end of the audit, though.

Giving up the multi-task SAR ship construction

Although maritime rescue needs a new multi-task ship, the Minister gave up the ship construction. NIK evaluated that decision as improper. Over PLN 1.2 million was wasted as a result of the resignation which NIK considered uneconomic. As a consequence, Poland still does not comply with guidelines of the Helsinki Convention which recommends eliminating pollution from the Polish sea areas within 8 hours. Having two ships adapted to eliminate pollution ensures taking action within that time in 59% of the area of responsibility. It is worth remembering that the Convention came into force in Poland on 17 January 2000.

The Supreme Audit Office (with its audits of 2004 and 2019) indicated twice so far that Poland did not comply with the Helsinki Convention guidelines on covering the area of responsibility for eliminating sea pollutions. Ever since, the Minister did not ensure any improvements. SAR presented an analysis which shows that the lack of a new ship has limited the capacity to:

  • carry out rescue operations related to hazardous and harmful substances other than oil,
  • tow large water drafts,
  • conduct effective fire-fighting actions,
  • unload the ship from oil-related or hazardous substances on an emergency basis,
  • accept a big number of castaways,
  • coordinate big rescue operations (on a massive scale in particular) on the spot.

Threat response time

As with all rescue services, the threat response time is critical. Therefore, it is so important for the services to be on standby. According to the Supreme Audit Office, SAR properly accepted threat alerts and carried out rescue operations using required resources. Dislocation of SAR units enabled the performance of rescue tasks related to different threats, such as: ship sinking, grounding, fire, worsening health condition of a person on board, falling overboard.

The dislocation also enables the units to reach the most remote borders of the Polish area of responsibility within a bit more than 2 hours. If necessary, the service may use the support of choppers and aircrafts of the Polish Navy or the Border Guard.

It is worse when it comes to fighting threats and pollutions of the Baltic Sea. SAR has only two pollution-fighting ships. Their maximum speed is 13 and 9 knots. The faster one can reach the most remote parts of the Polish sea areas within 20 hours from leaving the port in Gdynia. If the sea is polluted with an oil-related substance, this time is too long to ensure effective removal of the oil slick.

The so-called “beach incidents” are a big issue. They are related to swimmers and persons who use floating equipment of different kinds within the maximum of one sea mile from the seashore. They make up over 55% of all SAR operations. Twelve SAR units are dispersed along the 532km shore which makes it impossible to save every drowning person. Therefore, SAR cannot replace other water rescue services.

Cooperation with other rescue services

One of fundamental problems of SAR is the absence of a joint communication system between all units cooperating in rescue operations. The Minister of Interior and Administration started to build the communication system for subordinate units (including the Police, the State Fire Service and the Border Guard). However, the Minister did not make sure the system could be used by SAR in the future. SAR was not included in works on the TETRA system, although the project could represent an opportunity to standardise operational communication with units cooperating in SAR operations.

In case of the fire service units, there is a dispute on whether they can participate in actions on the sea. According to the Commander-in-Chief the provision in the State Fire Service Act addresses the “country area” as the land and the seashore. This approach does not take account of the sea areas of the Republic of Poland where the territory of Poland includes also the area of 12 NM wide sea areas. The Minister informed NIK that there are no clear-cut and precise statutory provisions enabling the fire service units to carry out any actions on the sea (except for lifesaving operations). That is why, firefighters could not take part in firefighting actions from SAR ships.

Cooperation with the Volunteer Water Rescue Service is also problematic because the Sea Safety Act does not clearly indicate the participation of VWRS units in SAR operations.

Due to the dispersion and distance between stationing SAR units (from 11 to 64 km), this service may not be treated as fundamental in rescuing persons who are threatened with drowning on the beach and in the coastal area. The reason is that it may reach the most remote regions of the coast within more than half an hour. SAR most frequently cooperated with sea rescue units although their resources were not always available.

Key recommendations

To the President of the Council of Ministers

  • cooperation between rescue and safety services reporting to the Minister of Infrastructure and the Minister of Interior and Administration should be covered by relevant supervision.

To the Minister of Infrastructure

  • decisions on sea investments should be made based on an in-depth analysis, to reduce the risk of wastefulness,
  • funds should be provided to increase SAR’s operational capacity to combat threats and pollutions in the sea environment on the level required to comply with the Helsinki Convention guidelines,
  • funds should be provided to maintain SAR’s operational capacity to save lives on the sea, due to the need to replace the obsolete water crafts which break down more and more frequently,
  • a clear-cut scope of areas and cooperation principles between the fire service units and SAR in terms of their tasks on the sea should be agreed upon – in consultation with the Minister of Interior and Administration – in the SAR Plan and the National Plan.

To the Minister of Interior and Administration

  • measures should be taken to precisely define cooperation principles between the water  rescue units and SAR.

To the SAR Director

  • efforts should be taken to adjust regulations on working norms and duty times in SAR.


Article informations

Date of creation:
27 April 2022 17:26
Date of publication:
27 April 2022 17:26
Published by:
Marta Połczyńska
Date of last change:
27 April 2022 17:26
Last modified by:
Marta Połczyńska
Motorboat of the Polish SAR on the sea © Maritime Search and Rescue Service (SAR)

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