From the booklet “Across the Water”,  biography of Captain A.E. Wilmott, ferry master and later Marine Superintendent/Harbour Master at Heysham for LMS Railway steamers.

“Although modern in every other respect, none of the Fleetwood steamers was fitted with wireless telegraphy until 1921 and instead they carried on the bridge two carrier pigeons for use in an emergency, the basket containing them placed on board immediately before the ship left Fleetwood.”

Time to update GMDSS — but with what?

Lloyds List 9 March 2010 by Peter Blackhurst

WHILE there may be differing opinions on when the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System actually began — its conception in 1979, the GMDSS Conference in 1988 or the full implementation in February 1999 — it is widely accepted that little has changed to the system in the intervening years and that now is the time to look at bringing the GMDSS up to date.

To that end, the request for a review of the GMDSS was placed before the International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Safety Committee at its 86th session. It agreed that Comsar, the sub-committee on radiocommunications and search and rescue, should carry out a scoping exercise over its next two sessions to assess which areas need to be reviewed, amended, and included or excluded.

Several forums have already started fringe discussions to open up the general awareness of the issues. These started at the joint IMO/International Telecommunication Union experts group last summer, where some excellent brainstorming took place. Earlier this month, a joint meeting of various organisations on HQS Wellington in London, organised by the Royal Institute of Navigation, hosted a discussion on electronic GMDSS that covered some pertinent questions: Has GMDSS worked? Can it do better? Which new technologies can be used? What will be its role for future electronic Navigation?

Another area of focus, including the question of its continued relevance, is Chapter IV of Solas, which deals with making a distress alert and call. One idea currently circulating is changing the title of Chapter IV to distress communications; all distress-related communications would be transferred into the chapter, while other communication needs are addressed by other chapters. There is a strong view that distress communications should be clearly separated from other types of communications.

Also for consideration is the demise of Telex and the bleak future of High Frequency; although carriage requirements include the relatively obsolete system, there are concerns over a lack of HF stations. Denmark closed its HF services in October 2009, for instance.

The four areas of carriage requirements (sea areas A1 to A4) might be reduced; this might come about if the MF/HF solution is amended, especially as there is a great deal of discussion regarding vessels in areas outside the coverage of Inmarsat’s geostationary satellites. The work being carried out by the IMO’s Ship Design and Equipment sub-committee may well reach the conclusion, in conjunction with Comsar, that vessels sailing in polar regions should be mandated to make special arrangements with administrations and coastal states for the transmission and reception of distress and safety messaging. These communications systems may well include HF or utilisation of other new technologies as appropriate.

It has been further suggested that the Automatic Identification System can become part of the GMDSS. There are many benefits in the way that AIS information is promulgated between ships, and this has really helped navigational safety, the monitoring of vessels by shore stations and in global information services.

Additionally, satellite detection of AIS signals is providing an additional resource that could be used for landing safety information. It could be that this system can provide a medium for relaying distress and safety information, or certainly in assisting with Search and Rescue activities.

It has also been suggested that Long Range Information and Tracking and Ship Security Alerting System may also have a place within the GMDSS.

Within discussion groups there is a strong feeling that the GMDSS should be maintained as a simple, reliable and responsive system, and not clogged up with unnecessary traffic generated by the misuse of ‘Digital Selective Calling’ facilities, multiple acknowledgments and relays (primarily by HF but also with other systems).

With that, we come full circle. An idea gaining ground is one that was first considered at the conception of the GMDSS: that it should consist of a VHF/satellite solution for distress and safety alerting, and that the need for MF or HF is superfluous to modern needs except in some commercial applications.

Electronic navigation will require much spectrum in its implementation and the release of current MF and HF frequencies may well be acceptable to the user needs. Digitisation of VHF and the use of other systems such as WiMax may also provide the connectivity for this large exchange of data.

We find ourselves at the beginning of the path in the evolutionary process. We have to be mindful of existing equipment that is installed and ensure that compatibility into the future is assured; that any changes in the system will provide cost savings to the operator and will not force the undue installation of new equipment before its time.

Finally, when this process is complete, we need a continuing review to ensure that the GMDSS remains modern and efficient.

Peter Blackhurst is head of maritime safety services at Inmarsat.

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