As numerous maritime accidents, ship groundings, onboard fires and crew evacuations have demonstrated already this year, emergency communications are vital to seafarers and shipowners.
It is therefore essential that these communications are 100% reliable, clear, swift and fully received in both directions. It is also important that safety and emergency communications use the latest technology for clear voice connectivity, instant messaging, data transmissions and co-ordinated shared communications globally.
It is with this in mind that members of IMO’s sub-committee on Navigation, Communications and Search and Rescue (NCSR) will meet this week and next to take key decisions on modernising emergency communications that they must not shy away from.
As the sub-committee sits for the sixth session between 16-25 January their discussions, working groups and decisions will change safety communications and the ability of search and rescue (SAR) organisations to communicate with distressed seafarers forever.
For 2019 is a key year for upgrading the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) that ship crews rely on when their vessels are in distress. GMDSS is a fundamental communications link to SAR co-ordination centres and then to those implementing the rescue.
However, it uses out-of-date technology on satellites launched a decade ago, so is ripe for upgrade and modernisation. IMO members have started working with more organisations to increase those that can provide GMDSS other than the current single supplier, Inmarsat.
In this respect, NCSR 6 will be updated on the progress Iridium Communications is making in tackling the regulatory requirements for its GMDSS services. For example, developing an operational manual for enhanced group calling services.
Iridium is working with the International Mobile Satellite Organization (IMSO), the inter-governmental organisation appointed by IMO to manage oversight of satellite GMDSS providers. Together they should overcome any operational and regulatory hurdles for implementing a GMDSS service globally, including demonstrating >99% reliability. It is critical to shipping safety that this can be achieved.
In this modernisation programme, NCSR will also be updated by China on the BeiDou Message Service System (BDMSS) as it needs to assess Beidou for GMDSS purposes.
There could also be more satellite operators looking to offer levels of GMDSS or emergency messaging services, either globally or regionally, now Iridium has been given licence to develop, demonstrate and implement its GMDSS service.
At NCSR 6, IMSO will also report on Inmarsat’s GMDSS developments and how it has met obligations of the existing system. This is expected to include how Inmarsat is implementing its Fleet Safety into GMDSS. It was given permission by IMO in 2018 to include coverage areas over the Middle East and Asia, from one of its Inmarsat-4 satellites, into GMDSS.
IMSO will present to NCSR 6 its discussions on the interoperability issues it has identified between recognised mobile satellite systems in the GMDSS.
This will be essential when more than one GMDSS is in operation as it will need to co-ordinate between the satellite operators and SAR co-ordination centres for routeing emergency calls, messages and SAR communications.
IMSO will also request it is given the responsibility of monitoring Maritime Safety Information (MSI) broadcasts over satellite systems as new communication technologies and new service providers come into operation.
This sub-committee session is important in updating GMDSS. It will report to the next Marine Safety Committee, which will meet between 5-14 June 2019. This committee will then need to make more decisions on amending the rule-books to enact GMDSS modernisation.
IMO rule-makers need to act this year to ensure shipping has modern, reliable and fit-for-purpose emergency communications. It needs to be co-ordinated at the highest level to guarantee that GMDSS works for all maritime and is open to all.
Links for GMDSS articles
Links for maritime accidents