Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) Ship distress and safety communications entered a new era on 1 February 1999 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. 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. Oversight of future satellite service providers The Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), at its 82nd session held from 29 November to 8 December 2006, agreed that the International Mobile Satellite Organization (IMSO) was the appropriate Organization to undertake the oversight of future satellite service providers in the global maritime distress and safety system (GMDSS) and invited IMSO to undertake that role forthwith. In essence, the MSC would determine the criteria, procedures and arrangements for evaluating and recognizing satellite services for participation in the GMDSS, while services recognized by the Committee would be subject to oversight by IMSO. The MSC instructed the Sub-Committee on Radiocommunications, Search and Rescue (COMSAR 11) to redraft resolution A.888(21) Criteria for the provision of mobile-satellite communication systems in the GMDSS, to reflect the decisions and to submit it to MSC 83 with a view to adoption by the 25th IMO Assembly in December 2007. COMSAR 11 was also invited to finalize any corresponding amendments to SOLAS chapter IV. Background The full implementation of the GMDSS wass 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. 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. 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. In a sense, all the hardware is now in place. All ships required to do so must comply with the GMDSS and for that we can thank the pioneers who 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 the software is also important – 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. 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 in the event of an emergency.


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