The RNLI appoints a Lifeboat Operations Manager to manage each lifeboat station, and he takes full responsibility for operational activities at that station. The LOM used to be known as the honorary secretary, and it is still common to hear the LOM referred to as the ‘hon sec’ in conversation. The headline responsibility of the LOM is to receive a request to launch on service, consider the nature of the call and the sea conditions, and then authorise the launch. He will muster the crew, and brief them before they go to sea. During a service, the lifeboat’s activities and radio traffic are monitored from the boathouse. Operational coordination is handled by the coastguard, who will communicate with the lifeboat station as necessary, but the lifeboat can communicate with the boathouse by radio as well. When the service has been completed, the details, including times of launch, arrival on scene, nature of the casualty, details of vessels and people involved are reported to the RNLI operations department. Either of the two deputy launching authorities will undertake the launch authorisation responsibility whenever the LOM is unavailable.
Before a lifeboat launches, someone somewhere must have reported a distress. This may be directly from a vessel in distress, or it may be that someone else has seen a distress signal, seen a person in the water who may be in difficulties, or is reporting that friends who have gone to sea have not returned within the expected time. Now that mobile phones are commonplace, a request for assistance is often initiated that way, which is much better than not having the means to ask for help. Unfortunately, it is no substitute for marine radio, which would allow the lifeboat to communicate with the casualty, and also allows direction-finding equipment to be used to help to locate the casualty.
These days, the crew is called out by pager. Although none of us like to see traditions fade, pagers are far more effective than maroons. They can be triggered very quickly, and can always be heard, unlike maroons which can only be depended on within a fairly short distance from the lifeboat station.
Regrettably maroons are no longer fired. The potential danger that arises from a maroon cartridge falling back to earth means that they can only be used at more remote lifeboat stations. There remains a need to signal to the casualty that help is underway and to warn harbour users that the lifeboat may need to pass at speed, and a ‘bang generator’ located at the boathouse is used instead. It is a gas powered device and produces a loud bang much like the maroons letting all know we are about launch, it also encourages the swans on our slipway to waddle out of the way.
The crew musters at the boathouse, and, provided that the conditions aren’t such that the LOM prefers to select senior crew for the job, the boats are crewed more-or-less on a first come first served basis. The LOM will provide an outline of the call such as type of casualty and position. Information can be keyed into the navigational instruments as the boats are launched, to be updated when communication is established with the coastguard once the lifeboat is at sea. A qualified helmsman will take command of the lifeboat, and the boat is typically in the water within eight minutes of the request to launch. The circumstances may mean that special equipment is needed that is not always carried, so this will be stowed aboard prior to launch.
Making It Work
There are many other aspects to running lifeboat stations that contribute to the immediate readiness that is essential so that the lifeboat is always available for service. The LOM oversees all of these as well, from appointing crew, ensuring that training routines are followed, making sure that the lifeboats are properly maintained, organising exercises, and working with the RNLI’s operational departments. Central supervision by the RNLI takes place through the divisional inspector, his deputies and staff, who regularly visit and oversee crew training and performance.
Our crew is a collection of men and women of differing backgrounds, some of whom have a long association with boats, others who joined the crew as comparative novices, but who have then undergone comprehensive and ongoing training. Each member of the crew has their own training syllabus, and records are maintained of the training that has been undertaken, and specifies update intervals. The more experienced crew will eventually become helmsmen, which means that they will take control and responsibility for the lifeboat when it goes to sea. The helmsmen are also collectively responsible for crew training.
Local training is supplemented by the RNLI’s mobile training units (MTUs), which will periodically visit to cover training on a specific subjects such as radio communications, navigation and seamanship. The Lifeboat College in Poole is an excellent facility providing a range of courses. All of our crew have attended the Lifeboat College, and courses extend to cover other lifeboat station roles including those of the Lifeboat Operations Manager (LOM) to Lifeboat Press Officer (LPO).