A review of the emergency response to reports of five boaters missing at sea, including two children, found “no major faults” with the police-led search and rescue effort.
The review by U.K. Coastguard Commander Andrew Jenkins concluded that the police decision not to launch its helicopter or marine boat overnight was correct, given air crew limitations, poor weather and the lack of a defined search area.
However, Cmdr. Jenkins did raise some concerns about oversight and communications during search and rescue operations in the Cayman Islands, as well as staffing levels in the marine and air support units.
Police have only one helicopter pilot, and staffing in the marine unit is less than half of what it is supposed to be, he wrote.
His review, carried out over seven days in April, was tabled in the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday. The inquiry was ordered by Governor Helen Kilpatrick amid public outcry about police reaction to the tragedy.
Gary Mullings, his nephews Nicholas Watler, Kamron Brown, 11, and Kanyi Brown, 9, and his friend Edsell Haylock were reported missing on Sunday, March 6, after they did not return from a fishing trip to 12 Mile Bank. Their upturned vessel was located 20 miles offshore the following day, but none of its occupants was ever found.
The family questioned the speed of the emergency response, in particular the decision not to deploy the police helicopter and marine units until 8:30 a.m. Monday. The incident, according to 911 logs, was first reported at 11:57 p.m. on Sunday. The timing of this initial call was also disputed by some family members, but Cmdr. Jenkins’s review found no evidence of an earlier report to police.
In his report, Cmdr. Jenkins writes, “The conclusions from the review found no major faults with the search and rescue response to the incident either with the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service or the 911 emergency service centre.
“Information gathering was appropriate as was search planning both at the outset and as the incident progressed. The decision to not launch either the police helicopter or Cayman Guardian during the hours of darkness was concluded to be correct once all the factors had been considered.”
The report largely endorses the public statements made by police at the time to explain their actions. Citing a lack of moonlight, worsening weather conditions and the flight logs from an earlier helicopter foray, the commander noted the decision not to deploy the helicopter on an offshore mission was based on “sound reasoning by experienced duty operational officers.”
“Safety of the search and rescue crews should always be of paramount importance, considered and weighed up against the likely chance of a successful outcome. Both crews have indicated that had a position of the craft been known or even approximated to a more accurate area and within safe travel distances, then it is likely that there would have been further conversation regarding an immediate launch despite the potential risks to crew,” the report states.
It also concludes that restrictions on the police pilot’s flying time and the need to narrow down the search zone meant a late start Monday was justified.
“One of the key areas of community concern is why a first light search was not completed. Starting the search at sunrise (0640) as opposed to at 0830 would have meant that the police aircraft captain was brought in early and thus would not be able to fly all day without going home again due to limitations on duty hours,” the review states.
It notes that the marine unit could possibly be deployed earlier in future incidents and then directed to a more precise location, once it is at sea. The report suggests, however, that the time between sunrise and the launch of the rescue units was appropriate.
“In terms in search planning, the time before deployment was used to good effect to look at all the factors of the incident, obtain additional phone records and locations, create a search plan using available tidal and wind vectors and, using local knowledge, a search box was created.”
The Coastguard commander raised broader concerns about lack of search and rescue resources in the Cayman Islands.
“The Police Air Unit currently have one pilot available and although there is a vacant position for a second pilot, this has not yet been filled, which means that the unit is always reliant on the one pilot to fly.
“If he becomes unavailable due to restriction of hours or potentially illness for example, then the aircraft will be sat on the ground and unavailable for search and rescue or any other missions.
“The Joint Marine Unit also have resourcing challenges with 14 current staff out of 37 positions available to perform all duties including customs, search and rescue and immigration. This can be a challenge to provide crews to deploy especially in protracted incidents where crews returning from a mission will require sufficient downtime to recover. Any type of search is extremely tiring and additional resources may assist with the prosecution of incidents and allow crews to receive adequate rest.”
The review also highlights issues with the marine unit’s equipment, including search and rescue vessel The Cayman Guardian, which broke down during the operation. The boat’s FLIR camera is unserviceable and its radar system is described by the marine commander as inefficient.
“These defects should, if possible, be rectified to ensure that when crews put to sea they have the very best chance of a successful mission,” Mr. Jenkins advises.
The report briefly addresses the issue of the alleged early 911 calls, noting that the 911 center did receive a call from a cellphone belonging to the missing boys’ mother at 10:42 p.m. on the evening of the incident, which, based on the content, was assumed to be a pocket dial. No mention is made of an earlier call alleged by some family members.
The review did find that 911 operators erred initially in their response to reports of a flare sighted off North West Point from the Macabuca restaurant in West Bay. The call was wrongly assumed to be a duplicate of an earlier call of flares sighted in the North Sound.
“Although this error was picked up by the police aircrew just a few minutes later and the caller re-contacted for further details, there were inevitably delays in response,” the report notes.
“It is also the case that had 911 not been able to get back in touch with the first informant, then vital and critical information may have been lost. It should be the case that each and every 911 call is treated as an individual and unique call unless the operator is absolutely certain that the time, location and circumstances are already being dealt with. This instance has already been noted by the 911 centre and steps put in place to remind operators to confirm all details and treat each case on its own merits.”
The report also highlights more general issues with the coordination of communications during a rescue effort between 911, police and the Port Authority, which puts out emergency briefings on VHF channel 16, the international distress, safety and calling channel.