The Global Maritime Distress & Safety System

5 February 2020 By Ted Morley
iStock/Iam Anupong

Capt. Ted Morley was raised aboard a schooner and has made a career working on board vessels ranging from superyachts to super tankers. During his tenure at sea, he worked his way up from seaman to master. He currently holds a USCG Master’s License, Unlimited Tonnage as well as several foreign certificates. Capt. Morley actively participates in maritime advisory committees in the U.S. as well as overseas and is involved in regulatory policy review in the U.S.. 

The night was dark with a low, overcast sky and rolling seas, no targets on the radar, and a boring watch as the Officer of the Watch sat monitoring everything. Suddenly, a loud boom and a flash of light lit up the sky — the engine room fire broke out at 3:27 a.m. with no warning and no mercy, and everything changed for the crew on board. 

The alarm was sounded, and as the crew rushed to their emergency stations, the captain got to the bridge and he knew the situation was dire as he ordered Diane, the third officer, to go to the GMDSS console. ... The crew fought the fire valiantly but to no avail — the last transmission Diane made that night was to update the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) that they were abandoning ship. Praying that help would reach them, she left the bridge for the last time and rushed to the lifeboat…

The sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 demonstrated the need for common frequencies, and legislation was passed soon after.

GMDSS became an international standard in 1988 and became fully operational in 1999. The goal was to improve emergency communications and automate many functions of the radio officer. Digital Selective Calling allows for automatic hailing and communications with a specific vessel, and the creation of specific equipment lists for the four different sea areas standardized what vessels must be equipped with. These standards apply to all passenger ships and cargo ships 300 GT or above in international waters. The training was also standardized to ensure all bridge officers were able to use the equipment on board. 

The sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 demonstrated the need for common frequencies, and legislation was passed soon after. The IMO continued those efforts and in 1979 the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue was drafted and the resolution to update equipment and develop a better system ensued. This laid the groundwork for GMDSS, thus simplifying communications and putting an end to Morse Code as the most common long-range communication.  

The IMO, as part of the STCW Code, sets the minimum requirements for GMDSS training in STCW A-IV/2; and the USCG sets the requirements as outlined in 47 CFR Part 80. GMDSS is one of the most critical systems on board and all watchstanders must be familiar with its use, and practice it routinely. There’s a lot more to GMDSS than just a console in the back of the bridge that’s only used for emergencies. 

This column originally ran in the February 2020 issue of Dockwalk.


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