The full implementation of the GMDSS on 1 February 1999 was an important date in maritime history, coming 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.
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, and the system was phased in from 1992 onwards.
Today, the GMDSS is 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 are required to be equipped with satellite emergency position-indicating radiobeacons (EPIRBs) and NAVTEX receivers, to automatically receive shipping safety information.
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.
With the completion of the SAR plans and the full implementation of the GMDSS, seafarers and ships' passengers should feel safer and more secure at sea.