Radiocommunications and Search and Rescue

Since the early days of radiocommunications, search and rescue has been linked to radiocommunication. 

Wireless radiocommunication, as evidenced by the Titanic incident, provided a means for authorities on shore to provide and coordinate aid to ships at sea, and for ships at sea to acknowledge a distress call form another ship and come to its assistance, facilitating also ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship communication. Search and rescue authorities have now been using radiocommunications for more than 100 years and its value has been evidenced in many renowned and successful SAR operations.

Since its inception, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has been instrumental in coordinating and regulating radiocommunications for search and rescue purposes. The first regulation of radiocommunication for search and rescue was implemented by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a sister United Nations specialized agency of the IMO, during the first International radiotelegraph convention celebrated in Berlin in 1906, which adopted the “SOS” distress signal as an international standard. The adoption of the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), 1974, as amended, by IMO strengthened the relationship between both organizations and the provision of standards and recommendations for radiocommunication in the search and rescue environment.

Implementation of the GMDSS

During the 1960s and 1970s, the development of satellite and digital radiocommunication technologies provided new opportunities for the development and modernization of maritime radiocommunication, particularly in relation to search and rescue. New systems and concepts such as the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) offered new capabilities to SAR authorities to capitalize on these developments. 

From 1992 to 1999, IMO and ITU implemented a new system to facilitate search and rescue radiocommunications at sea, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), which revolutionized the way distress, urgency and safety information was transmitted, coordinated and managed on a worldwide scale. IMO also provided standards and recommendations determining how distress and safety radiocommunications should be performed in the ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship directions.

Continuing progress of the GMDSS

Progression of the GMDSS is a continuing process with the main focus being on the search and rescue of people in distress at sea while taking advantage of the emerging radiocommunication technologies and advanced equipment and systems available to seafarers. Following the introduction of the GMDSS on 1 February 1999, IMO has introduced many improvements to the GMDSS over the years through adoption of several amendments to SOLAS chapter IV (Radiocommunications) and other related instruments and through development of many performance standards, guidelines and recommendations. In this context, the modernization of the GMDSS project, conducted between 2011 and 2022, was one of the most comprehensive and significant changes introduced in the GMDSS, enabling the future use of modern communication systems in the GMDSS whilst removing obsolete requirements.

The regulations and standards are provided by the conventions, resolutions and circulars that are developed through the committees of IMO, in particular the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) and the Sub-Committee on Navigation, Communications and Search and Rescue (NCSR).