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LCQ2: Maritime and aeronautical search and rescue

     Following is a question by the Hon Chan Han-pan and a reply by the Secretary for Security, Mr Lai Tung-kwok, in the Legislative Council today (January 6):


     On October 25 last year, a high speed craft departing from Macau for Hong Kong was suspected to have collided with some floating objects in the waters off Siu A Chau and lost power. That incident, which caused 124 injuries, has once again aroused public concern about the authorities' capability for providing maritime ambulance services. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) of the number of maritime safety incidents which occurred within Hong Kong waters in the past five years, as well as the number of persons injured in such incidents and taken to the hospital for treatment; in those maritime incidents involving over 10 injuries (including the Lamma Island vessel collision accident and the aforesaid incident), the respective time lapsed from the receipt of the report of the incident to the delivery of the last injured person to the hospital for treatment, and the emergency ambulance services received by the injured persons in the course of delivery; whether there were cases in which deaths were caused by the delayed delivery of the injured persons to the hospital for treatment;

(2) of the details of the ambulance service arrangements currently applicable to major maritime incidents, including the routes and the means of transport to be used for conveying the injured persons to the hospital; the respective numbers of injured persons who can be handled per trip respectively by various means of transport, and the time needed; whether healthcare personnel can perform emergency surgeries for seriously injured persons on board such means of transport; and

(3) given the increasingly hectic marine traffic, whether the authorities will consider afresh the suggestion repeatedly made by me and a member of the Island District Council for establishing a dedicated ambulance launch fleet?



     In order to effectively handle maritime incidents, the Security Bureau formulated the inter-departmental "Contingency Plan for Maritime and Aeronautical Search and Rescue 'SAR'" (the Contingency Plan). According to the Contingency Plan, various Government departments, including the Marine Department (MD), the Police, the Fire Services Department (FSD) and the Government Flying Service (GFS), would co-operate with one another and play their respective roles in maritime rescue operations.

     My reply to the three parts of the question by Hon Chan is as follows:

(1) and (2) Under the Contingency Plan, in a maritime incident, departments including MD, FSD and the Police will immediately initiate their search and rescue operations upon receipt of distress signals or emergency reports. MD acts as the Search Director within the Hong Kong Maritime Search and Rescue Region to co-ordinate search and rescue operations through the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre. Its responsibilities include instructing and coordinating with the participating departments, and deploying the most suitable vessels and/or other rescue resources for operations. The frontline search and rescue operations are mainly handled by FSD and the Police's Marine Region. Where necessary, GFS will also dispatch helicopters to assist in search and rescue operations, and to convey casualties to hospitals, or to helipads in various districts for ambulance transfer to the accident and emergency departments of hospitals after triage.

     Upon receipt of calls in relation to a maritime rescue incident, FSD will assign its fire and ambulance personnel to board the fire or police vessels dispatched for the incident. The ambulance personnel will carry first aid apparatus and medicine for treating casualties at the scene of the maritime incident. Generally, ambulance personnel will conduct an initial assessment and triage for casualties, and then consider suitable ways for transfer to hospital based on their conditions. After preliminary examination, those with serious injuries will be conveyed to hospital by GFS helicopters; and those with minor injuries will be conveyed to a nearby pier by fire or police vessels for further triage and pre-hospital care, and then conveyed to hospital by ambulances. Throughout the waiting period and the journey to hospital, casualties will receive appropriate pre-hospital care from ambulance personnel.

     The numbers of maritime incident calls and casualties in the past five years are set out at Annex. The time taken to deliver all casualties to hospital in each incident is affected by different factors, such as the physical environment of the incident scene, the marine traffic at the time of incident, the distances between the disembarking pier and individual hospitals and the road traffic conditions, the number of casualties and the distribution of their injuries, etc. As casualties may be carried to hospital by means other than FSD ambulances (such as GFS helicopters, ambulances of St. John Ambulance Brigade, etc.), FSD does not have a breakdown of the time taken for delivering all casualties to hospital in each incident.

     Depending on the types and models of the conveyances and on the severity of casualties' conditions, the relevant vessel can carry up to about 300 persons per trip, whereas a helicopter can carry three to 15 casualties per trip.

     Since the state of the sea in Hong Kong waters is often affected by the rough sea surfaces and big waves caused by local seasonal climate and busy marine traffic, it is difficult for fire vessels to stay stable in the sea, and such an environment is not suitable for performing major surgical operations. It is worthwhile to mention that the International Maritime Rescue Federation has specified that casualties in maritime search and rescue environments should be conveyed to the land at the earliest possible time and be attended to by land-based medical personnel. That said, the fire vessels of FSD (except speedboats) have all been equipped with ambulance equipment.  Some are further installed with a medical room to cope with the need of ambulance personnel.

(3) FSD reviews from time to time its overall marine firefighting and rescue strategies in Hong Kong as well as the related equipment required. With respect to the proposal for acquiring ambulance launches, FSD had conducted an in-depth study. Some suggested that, after procuring dedicated ambulance launches, ambulance personnel could board the launches upon receipt of calls and proceed to the incident scene as early as possible, attend to the casualties on the subject vessel and convey them ashore using the ambulance launches. Nonetheless, this concept has no difference in principle from the current practice of FSD in discharging search and rescue operations in relation to maritime incidents. Under the existing arrangement, ambulance personnel can attend to maritime incidents by fire vessels or police launches and convey casualties ashore by the same means of transport. In fact, the fire vessels of FSD (except speedboats) have all been equipped with ambulance equipment to cope with the needs of ambulance personnel. In addition, FSD has been studying on modifying the existing fire vessels with a view to better catering for the needs of ambulance personnel in handling casualties in maritime incidents. FSD and the Police will put in place ambulance equipment or designated ambulance area on the new vessels or Mobile Response and Command Platform to be procured in the future, so that the casualties and affected persons can receive initial treatments in a safe and stable environment.

     Taking into account factors including the expected overall benefits of the proposal to the handling of maritime incidents involving a substantial number of casualties and its implication on actual operations, as well as making reference to the practices of other cities, FSD considered that the existing maritime rescue strategy had already allowed a high degree of flexibility, mobility and responsiveness. There is no need to separately procure dedicated ambulance launches at the present stage. FSD will keep a watch on the development and needs of the society, and review current policies in a timely manner.

     Thank you, President.

Ends/Wednesday, January 6, 2016
Issued at HKT 17:45


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