Top 5 Radio Survey Blunders

30 June 2008 By Brian Coffin

Radio surveyors ensure that a vessel’s radio equipment will operate safely when needed. It is not the surveyor’s responsibility to train the crew on all operations of their equipment.

The radio surveyor's job is to be a resident expert on the operation of navigation and communication gear for the class society (i.e. Lloyds, ABS, BV etc.) and/or the Flag State (Cayman Islands, St. Vincent, Marshall Islands).

Still, it is not uncommon to perform a radio survey and find the crew to be very unaware of what is expected of them.

Here are the top 5 mistakes I've seen with regard to radio surveys:

1. Not having spare batteries.The required GMDSS handheld VHF radios usually are stowed away somewhere and haven’t been seen since last year's survey.

The ACR 16/6 handheld radio is cheap; it works and it satisfies every surveyor for the requirements. But how do you test it? Most first mates turn the lock on the battery and push the on/ off switch. That’s great if the power is on, but what if it isn't? The handheld radio transmits with all the other radios, so you put it back in the ditch kit.

But there's a big problem: Now you have a radio that will not pass inspection. The battery is considered expired because the seal has been broken.

I repeat: Always have spare batteries.

2. Improper mounting of the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon). A very common mistake by owners and/or crew is to mount the EPIRB in a location where it can’t be seen. (Trust me: I realize how much of an eyesore these things can be).

The EPIRB is usually the last line of defense when it comes to an emergency situation. These lifesaving devices are designed to be outside and exposed to the elements. If the vessel goes down this device will break free and float to the surface. It will send your position for a rescue crew to find you. But if the EPIRB is located on the aft deck next to the refrigerator and below the overhang, the EPIRB will be dragged down in the event that the vessel sinks.

Remember this tip: Mount the EPIRB as if your life depends on it, because someday it might.

3. Failing to use RADAR. I usually ask the first mate if he or she has tested the vessel's SART (Search and Rescue Transponder). The answer is usually quite predictable.

"Of course we have," the first mate replies. "We push the button and it beeps. Yep it works."

Well, the beeping sound won’t help a rescuer find you, so use your RADAR to test the SART. That’s what it is designed to do.

Make sure you see nice rings on your radar when it is in the test position (Hint: Walk outside if you must). If you can't see your SART on a nice day of testing your survival gear, how will a rescue boat find you when you are floating in the dark and dangerous Atlantic Ocean at night?

4. Letting the license expire. The radio operator designated to operate the radio station in an emergency can't have an expired GMDSS license. Always check the dates on licenses and don't let the licenses expire. Yes, it is that serious.

5. Having visible instructions. A lot of times I see the radio equipment set into the nicest varnished wooden consoles. Yet not a mention of any of the vessel's particulars are located nearby.

When an emergency arises,  it is required that the respondent give as much information about the vessel as possible. Unless you've committed the information to memory -- and even if you have -- it is strongly encouraged that you place a "cheat sheet" with the vital information in an obvious location near the radio.

Make sure that the placard has the vessel's name, call sign (spelled phonetically) and the MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number. You'll also want to include the IMO number, the vessel's length and anything else you would like to volunteer in an emergency.

When testing equipment and running through your drills each day, always ask yourself: Will the vessel be capable of communicating a distress signal if and when an emergency arises?

Remember, radio surveyors are not there to show you how to operate your equipment. They are there to make sure it operates correctly and safely.

Make learning your communication and distress equipment required training for all the crew.

Do you have stories to share about radio mishaps and emergency situations at sea? Share your comments below and be sure to vote in our interactive poll.

Brian Coffin serves as senior radio surveyor and managing director of Aquatic Navigation in Dania Beach, Florida. Email Brian at