Page updated: 19 February 2021
The NZSAR Secretariat explored the potential impacts of COVID-19 on search and rescue functions over the "short term".
While the projected impacts are summarised. At this stage, no review has been undertake to assess whether the actual impacts matched the projected ones.
To explore the possible short term impacts of COVID-19, the NZSAR Secretariat has divided the "short term" into 3 discrete periods:
The NZSAR Secretariat looked specifically at the impacts of a COVID-19 lockdown on demand for search and rescue, capacity and capability to respond and in terms of the ability to respond to events across the Pacific.
Reduced demand during lockdown
The NZSAR Secretariat projected that a COVID-19 lockdown would significantly reduce demand for search and rescue. This was because there would be:
One important observation was that effective distribution and acceptance of the ‘no recreation during lockdown’ message would be critical if demand for SAR was to be successfully suppressed over this time.
But also reduced SAR capacity
While demand would be lower during a lock-down, the NZSAR Secretariat noted that there would also be lower operational capacity too. In particular, it was noted that older and ‘at risk’ SAR personnel would not be available for service. There was some concern that this could limit the operational capacity of some units (e.g. Coastguard Masters). Furthermore, the requirements to provide ‘at home’ support and limit any risk to higher-risk people at home could restrict the availability of some volunteers. There was also a suggestion that there could be capability challenges in case of a significant event or if unit/group members were affected by illness or bereavement (should COVID-19 spread much more widely).
It was noted that there would be no training or exercises possible during the lockdown, thought there was limited real concern around this due to the short timeframe involved, and no associated decrease in skills or competencies projected over it.
Some other specific challenges for capacity and capability were also raised including:
Challenges for raising funds
It was noted that no public fundraising events would be possible during lockdown and that there would be increased costs associated with PPE.
Wider Pacific impacts
In terms of the wider search and rescue environment, SAR demand would be primarily associated with environmental events. The restrictions on landing access above were the main concern in this context.
The impacts of COVID-19 on the SAR were actually more significant when projected over a 0-3 month period than during a lockdown.
While it was noted that international shipping and aviation traffic would likely stay low, there was a concern that demand could nevertheless rise to normal or even above seasonal levels. This is because recreation would now be possible in the outdoors under Alert Levels 3 and 2.
In particular appeared likely that the end of lockdown would coincide with the onset of winter conditions in many areas. The NZSAR Secretariat commented that:
“It is likely that we will see a spike in post-lockdown activity, as people make up for lost opportunities, as well as taking advantage of quiet tourist hotspots. Reduction in SAR demand associated with the absence of tourists may be offset by increased domestic recreational activity.”
In summary, there was a concern that a combination of increased opportunity to recreate in the outdoors, high-risk weather and post-lockdown behaviours could drive demand up as high as normal levels.
Capacity and capability
There were major concerns that the return to normal or higher demand patterns could coincide with emerging new short term impacts of COVID-19.
It was suggested that there could be ongoing reduced operational capacity, partly due to unemployment (e.g. those working in the tourism industry) necessitating some people moving out of the district to find work or some individuals taking up new work to cover the loss of income by other family members. In particular, helicopter operators reliant on international tourists and commercial operations for their primary income were projected to experience financial pressures.
Over the 0-3 month period, it appeared likely that individual SAR volunteer competency re-certification opportunities would be restricted and equipment maintenance and operational readiness could be reduced. Also, SAR response resources for aviation and maritime events were projected to be restricted due to CAA and NMZ operational qualification requirements and it was thought that recertification delays could mean some assets would be unavailable for operations.
However, existing cross-agency arrangements and agreements would continue to operate, so at least that would not impact on capability and capacity.
In terms of volunteers, it was noted that membership would be largely unaffected, except for those who had concerns about catching COVID-19 on an operation, then transmitting it to older or ‘at risk’ populations. Over this period, it also appeared likely that wellbeing support might be required for some volunteers.
Restrictions on training and SAR exercises were beginning to be felt more severely over a 3 month period. One comment was that:
“Any training is likely to be intra-group, or remote, and focus on immediate needs. Access to training facilities will be restricted making skill maintenance and re-certification difficult.”
In addition, it was noted that specific pandemic response training would be required, covering matters like the use of PPE, sanitising procedures and so on. Relevant training materials would need to be developed and delivered to all members.
There were real concerns that over the 0-3 month period, there could be significant loss of income and support for SAR activities, particularly from local businesses directly impacted by Covid lockdown (e.g. gaming from pub charities, council funding). The impact was projected to be the greatest at unit/club level.
The concerns about increased costs of PPE and no ability to undertake public fundraising were also growing, particularly given greater competition for available funding from NGO social service agencies over this time.
Adapting to different Alert Levels
While it had completed the lockdown period, over the 0-3 month period, there was still a need to adapt to a wide variety of restrictions imposed as part of Alert Levels 3 and 2. In this context, the NZSAR Secretariat noted that SAR agencies would need training and to establish Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) appropriate for operating under different alert levels, with their associated risks.
There were some concerns that over time, the desire to ‘break free’ from lockdown would make prevention messaging mode difficult to accept. The NZSAR Secretariat said that
“People will be getting out from weeks of direct messaging, and are likely to reject central messaging”
Furthermore, given ongoing need to observe physical distancing requirements at Alert Levels 3 and 2, there was some concern that this could undermine direct prevention messaging (i.e. behaviours that might prevent the need for a SAR Operation).
Wider Search and Rescue Region (Pacific and Antarctica) Impacts
The same concerns around conducting Medivac Operations, NZDF vessels landing in the Pacific as arose under lockdown, persisted over lower Alert Levels also.
Key features of the wider Pacific context over the 0-3 month period were projected to be:
With continued limitations on international travel, it was noted that some Pacific nations might struggle without RCCNZ support, particularly those dealing with the impact of storm damage.
In addition, it was noted that there could be impacts on SAR capacity for responding to events in Antarctica over this time due to there being only skeleton staffing levels and no helicopter or fixed wing capability available. Furthermore, there were concerns that disruptions to maintenance schedules could reduce the availability of SAR assets.
The impacts of COVID-19 on SAR services over the 3-9 month period were projected to look something like a 'new normal'. This still involved a set of services facing considerable funding, capacity and capability challenges, but at least the initial demand spike post-lockdown would have passed.
Over this slightly longer period, it was projected that demand for Search and Rescue (SAR) would return to lower than normal levels. As in both lockdown and immediately post lockdown, over this time period, demand from international shipping and aviation to and from New Zealand and the Pacific Islands was predicted to be lower.
The NZSAR Secretariat suggested that:
“People may have adjusted to post-lockdown, and be returning to their normal recreational activities. However, their area of activity is likely to be larger with new activities, potentially putting them into higher situations.
Volunteer workforce impacts
Initial variations to life and lifestyle immediately post-lockdown would become the new ‘normal’, which could reduce availability of some volunteers. As the NZSAR Secretariat put it:
“For individuals who could not return to SAR soon after lockdown, they are likely to have filled this niche with other non-SAR activities.”
There were concerns that any lost capacity due to COVID-19 impacts on volunteers would not yet be replaced over the 3-9 month period. Mitigating this concern to some extent was the prospect that individual groups who lost members could receive more support from adjacent groups.
The NZSAR Secretariat commented on the likely volunteer workforce impacts overall, saying:
“Increase in social awareness as a consequence of Covid-19 may see an uptake in altruistic activity that is deemed ‘essential’. SAR may see an increase in volunteering activity, but this will be offset in some areas by recession impacts.”
In addition to this, they noted that ongoing wellbeing support for volunteers would likely be required, resulting in higher costs for this service.
Capacity and capability impacts
While capability was projected to stabilise, capacity and capability overall was still predicted to be ‘sub-normal’ over the 3-9 month period. As well as concerns on the volunteer workforce, there were rising worries that ongoing issues with supply of equipment and maintenance (partly due to loss of income for SAR agencies) could reduce operational capability. On top of the financial pressures driving this, there was a concern that new PPE and Standard Operating Procedures (PPE) requirements might affect response times and availability.
Over this timeline, training would continue to be reduced. However, one suggestion was that more use of tabletop exercising might be possible. Furthermore, greater use of web-based activity was another suggestion. In particular, further development of online resources and training to support both competency and skills-development training was recommended. This training would be focused on high-need areas and exercises would be limited (partly due to funding restrictions).
There was also a suggested need to revamp educational material to reflect pandemic response operating procedures.
Of lingering concern was that the financial pressures of needing to adapt to the COVID-19 response, combined with still no ability to undertake fundraising events would continue racheting up financial pressure on the sector.
Also, ongoing financial pressures on helicopter operators reliant on international tourists or commercial operations appeared likely to result in some operators ceasing or limiting their availability.