One feature of this ‘wordpress’ site is that I can see the search terms that people used that brought them to this site.  It is clear that people are asking questions that are not answered here.  If you came here looking for an answer, that’s not here, feel free to post your question to me ( and, subject to the limitations explained on the introductory page, I’ll see what I can do.  The only condition is that if I can answer the question, I’ll put the question and answer here for the benefit of everyone.

On that basis I set out below a question I was asked by a fellow NSW SES volunteer.

Someone was telling me that an SRB “General Land Rescue” Unit also cover rescue on inland waterways. I thought water ways were covered somewhere else but I don’t really know where to look for a definition of “General Land Rescue”.

I have tried SES learner guides, The State Rescue Board documents, and Google. I cant find any sort of definition; Land Rescue would tend to indicate Land rather than water ways? What is the definition or area of care for “General Land Rescue”?

The answer would appear obvious, marine rescue would be rescue from water, land rescue, rescue on land!  In fact confirming the answer was much more complex in part due to poor drafting of the SRB policy, or at least a lack of clear definitions.

Like my correspondent, I couldn’t find a definition of ‘general land rescue’.  The State Rescue Board says:

Rescue units are broadly grouped into two areas based on the environment in which they operate:

  • Land Rescue Units or
  • Maritime Rescue Units…

Land Rescue Units or Accredited land rescue resources are categorised as either:

  • General Land Rescue Units; or
  • Specialist Rescue Units.

General Land Rescue Unit
A rescue unit trained and equipped to handle a broad range of rescue tasks in their designated area of responsibility.

Specialist Rescue Unit
A rescue unit trained and equipped for a particular task or specialised capability for example vertical, caves, confined space, diving, swift water or flood rescue operations.

Marine Rescue Units
Marine Rescue Units (MRU) are those units that are specifically trained, manned and equipped to carry out marine rescue operations. MRU are equipped with rescue vessels which have been accredited to respond within a specified rescue operational area, on a 24 hour, seven days a week basis.

The State Rescue Policy (at [2.08]) says, unhelpfully, ‘Land rescue units are to respond to any perceived or actual rescue incident in a timely and safe manner’ (emphasis added).   Given that definition it became easier to think about what ‘marine’ or ‘maritime’ rescue is; what it is not must be ‘land rescue’.

Neither ‘maritime’ or ‘marine’ are defined.  According to the Oxford dictionary, ‘maritime’ means ‘connected with the sea, especially in relation to seaborne trade or naval matters’ whilst marine means ‘relating to or found in the sea’.

According to the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism:

Australia has a range of maritime zones, most of which are established under the Seas and Submerged Lands Act 1973 (the SSL Act). Those zones are: waters within the limits of a State or Territory, coastal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Australian fishing zone (AFZ) and the continental shelf.

The territorial sea of Australia is that area defined by proclamation under the Seas and Submerged Lands Act 1973 (Cth) s 7.  The territorial sea extends for 12 nautical miles from the coast (Seas and Submerged Lands Act 1973 (Cth) s 7 and note 2).

The “coastal waters of the State” are ‘that part of the territorial sea of Australia that is within 3 nautical miles of the coast’ (Interpretation Act 1987 (NSW)).   Coastal waters of the state remain part of the territorial sea even though they are within the jurisdiction of the States (Coastal Waters (State Powers) Act 1980 (Cth) and Coastal Waters (State Title) Act 1980 (Cth)).

Water within the limits of the States are ‘… waters of or within any bay, gulf, estuary, river, creek, inlet, port or harbour … within the limits of the State’ (Seas and Submerged Lands Act 1973 (Cth) s 14).  The coastal limit of the state is the low water mark and a boundary defined by drawing a ‘closing line’ across bay and river mouths (Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism).

The State Rescue Policy refers to marine rescue and Australia’s obligations under international law.  That policy says ‘Marine Rescue includes the locating of vessels in distress at sea or in sheltered waters and bringing the vessels and their occupants to safety’ ([3.04]).  The Board also has Marine Standing Operating Procedures which say ‘”Maritime Rescue” includes the locating of vessels in distress at sea or in sheltered waters and bringing the vessel and its occupants to safety or, if that should not be feasible, recovering the occupants and bringing them to safety.”  It’s rather problematic that in the policy it refers to ‘marine rescue’ and in the procedures, ‘maritime rescue’, and that the definitions are not identical; is there meant to be a difference? Probably not in which case the same term, and the same definition should be used.  Further, the definitions are incomplete; they tell us marine and maritime rescue ‘include‘ the tasks listed, but if they ‘include’ these things, then that is only part of the definition, marine/maritime rescue must extend to something else, but what?

Putting these drafting issues to one side, the definitions of ‘marine’, ‘maritime’ and what is the ‘sea’ suggest that Marine rescue is limited to rescue at sea; everything else, including rescue on inland waterways, would be a matter for ‘land’ rescue.

The matter is however complicated by the use of the term ‘sheltered waters’ in the definitions of marine and maritime rescue.  Sheltered waters are defined by NSW Maritime as ‘partially smooth’ and ‘smooth’ waters which are, in turn, ‘waters were the significant wave height does not exceed 1.5 metres 90% of the time’ and ‘waters were the significant wave height does not exceed 0.5 metres for 90% of the time’.

Further, marine rescue units are accredited in three categories:

Category 1:         Smooth Waters, partially smooth waters, enclosed waters and bars (within a limit of 0.5 nm seaward)

Category 2:         Restricted Offshore (within a limit of 7 nm seaward)

Category 3:         Offshore (within a limit of 15 nm seaward).

Applying the presumption that the words used in one Act or rule have the same meaning in another, the term ‘enclosed waters’ in the SRB accreditation should be taken to apply to ‘navigable waters within the land mass of New South Wales such as inland and coastal rivers, inland and coastal lakes and similar waters’ (Marine Safety (General Regulation) 2009 (NSW) s 3; but see also Management Of Waters And Waterside Lands Regulations 1972 (NSW) Reg  4 for a slightly different definition).

Finally in the State Rescue Policy, marine rescue is distinguished from Inland Waterway Search and Recovery (see [2.26]).


It appears to me therefore, that locating and assisting vessels in distress, whether at sea or on inland waters, is a matter of marine rescue, whereas rescuing individuals, people, from waterways (or at least people who did not fall into the water from a boat) would be Inland Waterway Search and Recovery and therefore a ‘land rescue’ operation.

It may be that the distinction is not important.  The police, who remain responsible for all rescue (State Emergency And Rescue Management Act 1989 (NSW) s 50; State Rescue Policy at [2.25], [2.26] and [3.23]) will, no doubt, call upon anyone that can assist.  There will, I’m sure, be many inland waterways that have no dedicated, accredited marine rescue unit and the police would, in those circumstances, call upon the local land rescue unit; the SES, who may not be an accredited land rescue unit but who  have flood rescue capability (State Emergency Service Act 1989 (NSW) s 8; State Rescue Policy at [1.34]) and therefore have a boat and people trained to rescue people from water and who could use those skills even if the river or water way is not in flood; or anyone with a boat.  Equally if there’s a person in distress on an inland waterway who, say, fell off a bridge rather than a boat, then the police could and would call upon a marine rescue unit that was available and best placed to perform the rescue.

It is interesting to note that the master of a ship at sea has an obligation to render assistance to any one ‘in distress’ at sea, and that obligation is backed with a  maximum 4 year gaol term for failing to provide that assistance (Navigation Act 1912 (Cth) s 265).  Masters of vessels on inland waterways have a similar obligation but only if they are involved in a ‘marine accident’ (Marine Safety Act 1988 (NSW) s 98).  A master of a vessel on inland waters, who was not involved in the accident, may be asked to assist another boat or person in distress but, it appears, is under no legal obligation to provide that assistance.

Michael Eburn

18 June 2012.