Identifying the emergency phase

Page updated: 27 November 2020

If you're the Incident Controller, you must identify the incident's emergency phase.

Emergency phases indicate different levels of concern

When identifying the emergency phase, you need to consider:

  • the location of the incident
  • whether SAR resources are near to the incident
  • whether delaying a response will increase the risk to subjects or SAR resources
  • whether SAR resources can respond appropriately.

Uncertainty phase / Evaluate and Investigate

An uncertainty phase exists when you believe the subject's safety is in doubt. The key word for this emergency phase is doubt.

A situation is in the uncertainty phase if you need to monitor it or you don’t have enough information to know whether a SAR response is needed.

In this phase, you need to try to communicate with the subject whose safety is in doubt. You must do this so you have enough information to decide:

  • whether a SAR response is needed 
  • the urgency of the potential response.

You may decide no response is needed

In this case, you need to:

  • record information about the incident and the actions taken 
  • have your decision reviewed by an independent SAR qualified Incident Controller, who will either confirm or reject it
  • enter in the sector record system, SARdonyx.

If the independent expert thinks a SAR response is needed, they can propose a response that includes gathering and analysing more information. This response must happen as soon as possible.

As Incident Controller, you might gather and analyse more information and still think a SAR response is not needed. In this case, the same independent expert needs to agree that no further response is needed. They must be involved in making the final decision.

You may decide a response is needed

In this case, you may respond by:

  • communicating directly with the subject whose safety is in doubt so you can monitor the situation
  • gathering more information about the incident or confirming known information
  • sending SAR resources to gather further information or confirm known information (use an information collection plan if needed).

Incidents involving aircraft or vessels have specific criteria for uncertainty

An aircraft incident may be in the uncertainty phase if:

  • the aircraft has not communicated within 30 minutes of the time it was meant to
  • 30 minutes have passed since an unsuccessful attempt to communicate with the aircraft
  • an aircraft has not arrived within 30 minutes of the last estimated time of arrival or the arrival time estimated by air traffic services, whichever is later, and there is any doubt about the occupants’ safety.

The uncertainty phase exists when a vessel:

  • is overdue at its intended destination
  • has not communicated as planned
  • has not made expected reports about position or safety.

Alert phase / Measured Response

The alert phase exists when you’re aware that a subject is at risk of death, injury, or harm, and may need help, but they’re not in immediate danger.

The key word for the alert phase is apprehension.

In the alert phase, information clearly shows that a subject is at risk, and enough information exists for you to develop a plan.

Distress phase / Urgent Response

The distress phase exists when you’re reasonably certain that a subject is at risk of death, injury, or harm, and require immediate help.

The key words for the distress phase are grave or imminent danger and immediate assistance.

Examples of situations that should be identified as distress phases are when:

  • a coordinating authority receives information about an officially and commonly accepted distress signal 
  • investigations have not resulted in subjects being found after they have been reported overdue, and the incident cannot be classified in a lower phase
  • communication with an overdue vessel has been lost, and it was categorised in the ‘uncertainty’ or ‘alert’ phase
  • the fuel on an aircraft is thought to be exhausted or insufficient to reach safety
  • information indicates an aircraft is not operating correctly and a forced landing is likely
  • following the alert phase, unsuccessful attempts to contact the vessel or aircraft and further investigation indicates the vessel or aircraft is likely to be in distress
  • information indicates the vessel or aircraft is not operating correctly and is likely to be in distress.

Communicate, reconsider, and update the emergency phase

As Incident Controller, you need to:

  • communicate the emergency phase to everyone involved in responding to the incident
  • review the emergency phase and revise it if needed as new information arrives
  • let everyone involved know what the new phase is if you’ve changed it
  • carry out all these tasks with urgency.