Risking one’s life to save another’s is a humble act of generosity. Events such as natural disasters are quite spontaneous and in such instances, many lives are at risk. Taking a step towards rescuing the lives of commercial fishermen and others who find themselves in trouble off the coastline, the Sri Lanka Lifeboat Institution (SLLI) recently held a Commissioning ceremony. A significant feature at this ceremony was the arrival of a Tyne Class lifeboat which would be used in future rescue operations. Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Mr. Michael Vlasto, former Operations Director at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) shared his views about this milestone reached by SLLI, benefits to Sri Lanka and his experience in the field. Excerpts:
Q A brief introduction about you.
After some years at sea as a professional seafarer I came ashore and then spent 38 years working for the RNLI. The last 17 years I served as the Operations Director responsible for the overall operational effectiveness of the lifesaving services we provided ranging from lifeboats to lifeguards and Flood relief teams. In addition I became involved with the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) on a voluntary basis which is an international NGO and spent the last 8 years as Chairman of the Trustees.
Q Tell us about the UK & Ireland’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and its link with the Sri Lankan Lifeboat Institution (SLII).
The RNLI, is a highly respected voluntary lifesaving service which provides over 80% of the maritime SAR response around the waters of the British Isles. This Tyne Class lifeboat was made available and thanks to some funding provided by Master Divers can now continue her distinguished lifesaving activities in the warmer but often stormy waters here in Colombo. The IMRF and the RNLI will do what they can to assist with training provision as the SLLI moves forward. As with all voluntary organisations funding is always a challenge and approved Government charity status is essential to allow necessary support from the corporate and international organisations that are well placed to assist and most importantly provide for some tax relief which is the standard practice in many of the IMRF’s member States.
Q How has this link favoured the country thus far? (Ex: during the tsunami etc.)
One of the SLLI’s trustees, Captain Stuart Nourse, who has long established family links with Sri Lanka, was also a long serving colleague of mine working with me at the RNLI. As Mr Ranjit Gunawardena, SLLI Chairman developed his initial vision and established the SLLI, Stuart became involved and this created an initial link with the RNLI which has developed and also involved the IMRF over the years.
Q Why were you interested in a field like this?
Having had the pleasure of working with the RNLI which is one of the world’s most sophisticated lifesaving services it had been a passion of mine to assist developing other similar services that have been less well supported and could benefit from the RNLI’s experience gained over the last 192 years. Being involved with the saving of life at sea or anywhere else is a very rewarding activity.
"As chairman of the IMRF I had the opportunity to see improvement in Maritime SAR across the world"
Q As the former chairman of the IMRF what tasks did you get to handle in your capacity?
The most satisfying has been the involvement in developing the charity, over the last decade, into a highly regarded truly international NGO which is making a difference. As chairman of the IMRF I had the opportunity to see improvement in Maritime SAR across the world meaning when someone got in trouble on the water they had a greater chance of being saved. Highlights include the work we have done with the Mass Rescue Operations Project which over 7 years has raised the profile of the challenges faced by rescue services when dealing with these types of events such as the Costa Concordia. Over this time the IMRF held 3 international conferences, developed a library of online resources, delivered workshops around the world and helped guide regulations through our consultative status at the International Maritime Organisation where the IMRF has consultative status. Most rewarding was seeing the larger established rescue organisations willing to assist the developing groups, sharing resources, helping with training and in many cases donating rescue boats and equipment, members assisting members.
Q Any unforgettable experiences while at operations?
Many humbling experiences such as seeing fledgling organisations, particularly in developing countries, achieving good results with very basic equipment. The work currently being carried out by several European members of the IMRF include providing assistance in meeting the challenges of the migrant issues in the Mediterranean. While in Africa the IMRF assisted fishermen on a freshwater lake to develop their own rescue service including the making of rudimentary life-jackets which reduced the loss of lives in the area.
Q What is the ‘members assisting members’ concept?
Established member organisations assisting developing organisations - an example could be the Chinese assisting in training the SLLI crew. The Chinese (China Rescue and Salvage) have been operating several similar former RNLI lifeboats around their coast for some years. (This is not arranged yet but is a possibility!)
"My experience in the UK and observations from around the world suggest that people, both men and women, like the challenge of doing something worthwhile"
Q Do you think that Sri Lankan’s have ample knowledge about a rescue operation?
There is a lot of experience already within the Navy and the Coast Guard. This new venture is focussed particularly on the rescue of the commercial fishermen operating off the coast where a dedicated lifeboat of this size and capability has a lot to offer.
Q In the event of a natural disaster, how prepared are they?
Not really in a position to comment on this as our focus is very much on maritime SAR. However the training we hope to provide will give them the skills and knowledge to work with the SAR and disaster management structures in place in Sri Lanka.
Q What brought you to Sri Lanka this time?
An invitation to attend the Commissioning Ceremony for the lifeboat which is the culmination of a lot of effort and involvement through the RNLI and the IMRF to ‘make it happen’. I look forward to hearing that the training of a crew is progressing and that the lifeboat has been brought into full operational service. There was also an opportunity to see an idea that was hatched 15 years ago become a reality, pretty inspiring seeing what has been achieved which is a credit to all involved.
Q Very few people would be interested in a field like this when looking at global career trends. Is it a promising career or should someone only consider it a hobby?
Interesting question! The SLLI is about people doing this work on a voluntary basis. My experience in the UK and observations from around the world suggest that people, both men and women, like the challenge of doing something worthwhile and saving lives takes a bit of beating! Give them good training, appropriate equipment and the opportunity and the results speak for themselves. It is not always about having to employ people to rescue others - volunteers are there because they want to be and can provide a very effective additional resource at minimal cost. The skills gained by these unpaid professionals (the volunteers) are transferable into career pathways in the maritime sector both commercially and within the military structures, so doing their best can open the doors for future careers.