Ship distress and safety communications enter new era

Ship distress and safety communications enter a new era today with the full implementation of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) - an integrated communications system using satellite and terrestrial radiocommunications to ensure that no matter where a ship is in distress, aid can be dispatched.

The GMDSS was developed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the specialized agency of the United Nations with responsibility for ship safety and the prevention of marine pollution, in close co-operation with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and other international organizations, notably the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) and the COSPAS-SARSAT partners.

Under the GMDSS, all passenger ships and all cargo ships over 300 gross tonnage on international voyages have to carry specified satellite and radiocommunications equipment, for sending and receiving distress alerts and maritime safety information, and for general communications. The regulations governing the GMDSS are contained in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), 1974, which has been ratified by 138 countries, covering 98.36 percent of the world merchant shipping fleet by tonnage.

The GMDSS requirements are contained in Chapter IV of SOLAS on Radiocommunications and were adopted in 1988. The requirements entered into force on 1 February 1992 but provided for a phase-in period until 1 February 1999.

IMO Secretary-General Mr. William A. O'Neil said today that the full implementation of the GMDSS is an important date in maritime history, coming as it does almost exactly 100 years after the first use of wireless technology to aid a ship in distress.

Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi invented radio in 1895 and the first use of wireless in communicating the need for assistance came on 3 March of 1899 when a freighter rammed the East Goodwin Lightship which was anchored ten miles offshore from Deal in the Straits of Dover off the south east coast of England. A distress call was transmitted by wireless to a shore station at South Foreland and help was dispatched.

Mr. O'Neil said: " A century ago, Marconi was demonstrating his new wireless telegraphy system and it was soon clear how valuable wireless would be in saving lives at sea. But wireless had its limitations, notably in terms of the distance that could be covered.

"In the 1960s, IMO recognised that satellites would play an important role in search and rescue operations at sea and in 1976 the Organization established the International Maritime Satellite Organization, which later changed its name to the International Mobile Satellite Organization (Inmarsat) to provide emergency maritime communications. In 1988, IMO's Member States adopted the basic requirements of the global maritime distress and safety system or GMDSS as part of SOLAS.

"Now, as we approach the 21st century, we have in place an integrated communications system which should ensure that no ship in distress can disappear without trace, and that more lives can be saved at sea."

Under the GMDSS requirements, all ships were required to be equipped with NAVTEX receivers, to automatically receive shipping safety information, and satellite emergency position-indicating radiobeacons (EPIRBs) from 1 August 1993. Ships built on or after 1 February 1995 have been required to be fitted with all applicable GMDSS equipment. Ships built before that date were given until 1 February 1999 to comply fully with all the GMDSS requirements.

The GMDSS communications system under SOLAS complements the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR), 1979, which was adopted to develop a global SAR plan, so that no matter where an incident occurs, the rescue of persons in distress will be coordinated by a SAR organization and, where necessary, by co-ordination between neighbouring SAR countries.

IMO's senior technical body, the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), has divided the world's oceans into 13 search and rescue areas, in each of which the countries concerned have delimited search and rescue regions for which they are responsible. Provisional search and rescue plans for all of these areas have been completed, with the final area, the Indian Ocean, finalised at a conference held in Fremantle, Western Australia in September 1998.

Mr. O'Neil said that with the completion of the SAR plans and the full implementation of the GMDSS, seafarers and ships' passengers could feel safer and more secure at sea.

"In a sense, we have the hardware in place. From today all ships required to do so must comply with the GMDSS and for that we can thank the pioneers who, three decades ago, first saw the possibilities offered by satellite communications to save lives at sea, and then had the vision and imagination to develop a cohesive and coherent global maritime distress and safety system.

"But we should also think about the software - the people who operate the ships, and the people onshore who will monitor and act on distress calls. We must ensure that the people who will be responsible for operating GMDSS equipment are adequately trained, to avoid false distress alerts. Having all the correct equipment on board ship in an emergency situation may be of little use if people on board the ship have not been through the required emergency drills.

"A little more than a century ago, before the the advent of wireless communication, ships were cut off at sea, dependent on passing vessels for help in the event of an emergency. Now we can communicate with a ship anywhere in the world - but this does not mean we can be complacent. We should do our utmost to prevent emergencies from happening in the first place, by developing a safety culture and ensuring all maritime safety and pollution prevention regulations are fully implemented. And we should be trained and prepared for dealing with any eventual emergency."

Frequently Asked Questions about the GMDSS