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Flaws in the system



Despite what some would have you believe, the GMDSS is NOT a perfect system. The system suffers from a number of flaws, all of which have the potential to seriously undermine maritime safety. The problems (and their possible solutions) are discussed below and in the following 2 sections.

Two maritime distress systems ?

The GMDSS was introduced world-wide on Feb 1, 1999. To date, there are no facilities in many areas of the world, including many South Pacific nations. In addition, the majority of vessels operating through many areas are not GMDSS equipped. It can be argued that the GMDSS is a system primarily designed for developed nations, with no real thought given to the needs of the developing world. GMDSS implementation by many Flag States is less than satisfactory - some ships, particularly those registered under Flags of Convenience, are operating under exemptions, in direct breach of the SOLAS Convention.

Whilst the theory of one universal global maritime communications system is sound, the implementation of the system has been less than successful. For example, Flag States are left to determine their own requirements for vessels not covered by SOLAS - i.e.: those engaged on domestic voyages, and those vessels under 300 GRT, engaged on an international voyage. Whilst this solution presents no real problems for Europe, with its multitude of coast stations, and predominantly short voyages, it is next to useless for the vast expanses of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, where voyages of thousands of miles are undertaken by quite small vessels. The result is that, in many parts of the world, there are two separate maritime safety communication systems running in parallel. Some nations are even maintaining their Morse Code services on 500 kHz...

Whilst IMO have extended the requirement for merchant vessels to maintain channel 16 VHF watchkeeping until 2005, they have not continued the medium range compatibility provisions that existed between GMDSS and non-GMDSS vessels on 2 MHz under the pre-GMDSS system. What this means is that there are no direct communications available between GMDSS and non-GMDSS vessels outside of VHF range (about 20 nautical miles). A merchant ship can therefore sail by a small vessel in distress, and vice-versa. The GMDSS pundits would have us believe that the shore based GMDSS infrastructure will solve this problem by relaying ship-shore alerts from GMDSS vessels to their non-equipped counterparts. Again, this is fine in theory for Europe, but what if there is no GMDSS-compatible shore infrastructure in place? How are the alerts to be received, and then re-broadcast on non-GMDSS systems?

Alerts go unheard, and people die!

The problem is exacerbated by the separation of commercial and distress/safety functions brought about by the GMDSS. Under the pre-GMDSS Morse and Radiotelephone systems, the distress and safety services provided by Coast Radio Stations were subsidised to a certain extent by revenue from commercial traffic (i.e.: telegrams and telephone calls). The GMDSS has transferred the great majority of the world's maritime commercial traffic to Inmarsat (satellite) systems. Accordingly, many Coast Radio Stations are now forced to rely directly on funding from their Governments and SAR agencies. Unfortunately, some developing countries have precious little revenue to allocate to Coast Radio Networks. Even Coast Stations in developed countries are feeling the effects of the GMDSS - many of the world's major Coast Radio Stations have closed or severely rationalised their services. Some countries are now providing SAR-related services only from their stations.

What is being done?

To their credit, the IMO and the ITU are acting on the problem of GMDSS shore infrastructure in developing nations. The IMO are developing a regional SAR fund to assist in the development of GMDSS shore stations, and the ITU have sent technical experts to many regions to design GMDSS facilities. Unfortunately, these initiatives may not come into effect for some time.