What Happens When Someone Needs Help At the Coast? How Is An RNLI Lifeboat Called Out?

Whatever the emergency at sea or at the coast in the United Kingdom the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (commonly known as the HM Coastguard or MCA) will co-ordinate the incident and all the search and rescue (SAR) assets who are tasked.

The HM Coastguard will alert their own Coastguard Rescue Team to assist who are trained in mud, water, cliff rescue; advanced first aid and search trained for high risk vulnerable missing persons; or a SAR helicopter.

Other emergency service assets may be called upon such as the Ambulance Service, Police or Fire and Rescue Service of course all dependant on the nature of the incident.

Where incidents involve the discovery of legacy military ordnance or time expired pyrotechnic’s on the shoreline either the Royal Navy or British Army Ordnance Disposal Team will also be tasked along with a Coastguard Rescue Team.  The Coastguard will also request the launch of a lifeboat from the RNLI or an independent lifeboat to assist in the incident.  In the Republic of Ireland the SAR incidents are co-ordinated by the Irish Coastguard.

If someone is in trouble in the sea or at the coast the Coastguard may receive a call via the ‘999’ or ‘112’ system (European mobile phone emergency number) 

A call could be broadcast via marine radio on channel 16 which is picked up by the Coastguard.

Some boats carry modern distress beacons known as Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or individuals may carry Personal Locator Beacons.

Both of which send out a distress signal if someone ends up in the water and needs assistance. The Coastguard will then make a decision as to which SAR assets are required.

The Youtube video below demonstrates how a call is taken by the Coastguard Watch Officer.

Alerting the lifeboat crew

If the lifeboat is required the appropriate Coastguard Operations Centre will contact the relevant station Lifeboat Operations Manager (LOM) or one of her/his deputies known as the Deputy Launch Authorities (DLA’s) to request the launch. If the permission is given the Coastguard will then activate the lifeboat crew radio pagers which is an Arqiva radio paging system.

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RNLI Pager

The message on the crew’s pager screen’s maybe ‘crew assemble’, ‘Launch ILB’ (Inshore Lifeboat), ‘Launch ALB’ (All Weather Lifeboat), ‘Launch Hovercraft’, ‘Launch Both Boats’ or ‘Immediate Readiness’ (await further instructions, but ready to launch).

The lifeboat and shore crew will then make their way to the lifeboat station as quickly and as safely as possible.  Maybe in cars, motor cycle, pedal cycles, by foot or even in a bus.  This maybe whilst the crew are safety tucked up in bed, walking the dog, out shopping, at work, at home, or with their family enjoying a meal or at a social occasion.  The adrenalin will start pumping as the pager springs into action and each of the crew will be asking themselves ‘I wonder what this will be?’.

At some stations like Ramsgate, an audible and visual alarm will sound on the outside of the station warning motorists and pedestrians that the lifeboat will be launching and to clear the area.

Once at the station the Coxswain, Hovercraft Commander or Helmsman will brief the crew as they kit up and the lifeboat will be launched. Some stations select the crew whilst others will take the first ones through the door. Stations on the Thames such as Gravesend, Chiswick and Tower will already have a crew on the station. Dependant on the type of boat the station has they will need certain skillsets on the crew such as an All Weather Boat will require Coxswain and Mechanic.  Some station’s may also require a tractor/landrover driver and shore crew to safely launch the boat(s).

Once launched the lifeboat Helmsmen, Hovercraft Commander or Coxswain will confirm with the Coastguard via the radio that they are launched, their own crews numbers (for safety reasons) and clarify whether there is any further details of the incident.  Once on scene at the incident the lifeboat crew will communicate again with the Coastguard confirming that they have made contact with the casualty and will assess the situation providing remedial action, first aid and or reassurance where required.

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Ramsgate’s Atlantic Class 85 ILB Photo credit: Thanet RNLI Community Safety Team

The friendly face of the lifeboat crew will go along way to reassuring the casualties that they will do everything they can to resolve the situation.   Some incidents maybe resolved in a matter of minutes, whilst others may take hours of painstaking hardwork and determination. Often a great deal of courage, skill, determination, leadership, agility and perseverance is required to carry out a successful rescue.

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Ramsgate All-Weather Lifeboat at Broadstairs Water Gala 2019 – Photo credit: Ramsgate LPO

Back-on Service

Once the incident or rescue has been concluded the lifeboat will be released back to return to station where it will be cleaned, supplies re-stocked and refuelled for the next ‘service call’. This could be the next day or several weeks away. The Helmsman, Coxswain or Hovercraft Commander will hold a debrief to ascertain whether there is any lessons that can be learnt and any good work.

The lifeboat crew, tractor drivers, Launch Authorities and shore team will be ready again to launch the boat to whatever comes their way.

Why not sign-up to receive an SMS when your favourite Lifeboat Station’s pagers are activated?

While lifeboat stations remain operational and are continuing to launch to those at peril at sea, they are not currently open to visitors.

Other useful links:

Lifeboat Crew Pager Moments – RNLI

RNLI pager article

Government Technology – RNLI introduces time saving radio system

Ramsgate Lifeboat – website

Margate Lifeboat


HM Coastguard


Sarah Hewes