An Arctic preparedness base on Svalbard, with a cost frame of NOK 100 million over five years, as well as low operating costs, are among the initiatives suggested last year in the SARiNOR action plan.
The idea is for sufficient resources to be available on Svalbard, if such a base existed, for it to be able to handle a major incident – or multiple simultaneous incidents – in Svalbard waters without having to rely on assistance from the mainland.
The Norwegian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Foreign Policy and Defense has supported the idea of such a base. In its position on the Svalbard whitepaper, the Committee recommended "that the government should consider Longyearbyen a hub for search and rescue in the Arctic".
Disastrous if major incidents occur
- How good is the present preparedness situation?
- Locally, for Longyearbyen, preparedness is solid. But if an accident were to occur at sea, or if multiple accidents were to happen simultaneously, it will be hard. Imagine if an accident were to happen to a cruise ship holding 5,000 people on board. That would not end well, concludes MFN Manager Tor Husjord.
The action plan, which lists a series of prioritized initiatives to strengthen preparedness in the High North, is based on professional recommendations following two extensive investigative survey projects about preparedness, the Sarinor1 and Sarinor2 projects. (Fact box at the bottom of article.)
The initiatives in the plan, jointly funded by the Norwegian MFA and the industry, is supported by a heavy Norwegian SAR (search and rescue) community.
The recommendation that an Arctic preparedness base be established in Longyearbyen was the main issue on a meeting between MFN and the Ministry of Justice as recently as last October.
Wants new meeting with the ministry
Now that the issue is highly relevant again, following the grounding of the prawn trawler ‘Northguider’ in the Hinlopen Strait on Svalbard on 28 December, the MFN has once again taken an initiative towards the Ministry of Justice and Preparedness to establish cooperation that can strengthen preparedness in the Arctic.
MFN is also planning a meeting with North Norwegian MP’s on 17 January. At the meeting, both an Arctic preparedness base as well as SARiNOR and Sarex Svalbard, a two-year project organized by the MFN to conduct exercise expeditions in Svalbard in 2019 and 2020, will be on the agenda.
Following the ship accident late December last year, where a crew of 14 were rescued with narrow margins with the help of two helicopters chartered by the Svalbard Governor, there has been criticism towards Norwegian High North SAR preparedness from several actors.
Criticism has also hit the shipowners of the prawn trawler that ran aground. Preparedness experts refer to the going-it-alone trip as on the verge of reckless.
- We do hold the answers
- When Torbjørn Bongo of Troms County Labour Party warrants the government’s plan B in this case, the government could respond by inviting a political discussion about the implementation of the professional recommendations from SARiNOR, MFN’s General Manager Tor Husjod writes in a letter to the Ministry’s State Secretary Thor Kleppen Sættem.
- We do claim holding the answers after five years’ work. We have presented the documented and prioritised initiatives in the action plan, but it is all about money, Husjord says.
- However, with this report in hand, no one can argue that they do not know where the flaws and weaknesses are, says the MFN manager. He makes no secret of his opinion that the action plan and its action plan initiatives have received far too little attention.
A plethora of organisations and companies have contributed in the investigations leading up to the action plan’s being presented in January last year. Organisations involved include anything from the risk and classification company DNV GL to the Joint Rescue Coordination Center North Norway, the Coast Guard, the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue, the Norwegian Shipowners Association, the Air Wing and the 330 squadron (rescue helicopters).
In the letter submitted to the state secretary by MFN a few days ago, Husjord reminds the state secretary of the three issues discussed at the October meeting:
What should be done to improve preparedness in the Arctic?
Who should cover increased costs related to improved SAR preparedness?
What can Norwegian authorities in order to limit to a higher extent what vessels that are allowed to sail in Svalbard waters?
Preparedness expert and professor Odd Jarl Borch of Nord University said to High North News last Thursday that Norway is at the very forefront of High North preparedness, however, that there are still gaps to fill in preparedness. MFN supports his view.
Wants year-round operations
Husjord says MFN has had a series of good conversations with both the Ministry and its State Secretary Thor Kleppen Sættem.
- However, he adds, there have also been a lot of disagreement.
- One can never dimension preparedness at 100 percent, however, there should be a reasonable dimensioning. Money is often not available until after an accident has occured, he says.
It remains to be seen whether or not an Arctic preparedness base will be established. There are also a series of other initiatives that can contribute to improving preparedness.
Among these, Husjord argues, is the one suggesting that the Svalbard Governor’s vessel ‘Polarsyssel’ should be operating on a year-round basis.
- If ‘Polarsyssel’ had been available when the ‘Northguider’ incident occurred, the trawler might have been brought of the ground a long time ago now, he comments.
The Svalbard Governor’s vessel is only operating through nine months of the year at present. During the remaining three months, it lies at bay in Ålesund due to limited funding.
Want sea rescue vessel
Husjord says the Northern Maritime Forum also has been in touch with the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue, and that the organization he represents also hopes to have a sea rescue vessel stationed on Svalbard in the longer run.
- There is much going on right now. We are amongst others exited that we will soon have a Coast Guard vessel with towing capacity. That’s just great, the MFN manager says.
Because, as he says, vast oceans, remote fjords, ice and temperatures down to – 20 C are no joke.
- One can also envisage a scenario in which a vessel with 100 persons onboard were to have a blackout and lose all power. If that were to happen, it would not take long for people to freeze to death.
SARiNOR1 and SARiNOR2 are two extensive investigative surveys about preparedness in Arctic waters. SARiNOR1 focuses on search and rescue of people in accidents in Arctic waters, whereas SARiNOR2 focuses on preparedness against acute environmental pollution and salvaging of values at the scene of accident. The starting point for the SARiNOR project, which is funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the legally binding SAR Agreement between the eight member states of the Arctic Council. This agreement has created a formal framework for Arctic preparedness.
This article originally appeared in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.