A more expansive safety platform for seafarers in distress


Recent progress at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to modernize the free-at-point-of-use Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) has some major benefits for the messaging functionality and last resort connectivity available to the world’s 1.65 million seafarers.

GMDSS effectively gives seafarers their own emergency service, accessing satellite and terrestrial technology to ensure that vessels in peril can always get through to a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), and that Search and Rescue (SAR) operations can be launched.

These criteria are designed to ensure that a commander needs only to press and hold the dedicated distress button on the satellite terminal for four seconds to trigger transmission of an undesignated distress signal containing the vessel’s details and position. Alerts travel via satellites to and from ground infrastructure via the associated MRCC.

Distress signals take priority over all other satellite network traffic, superseding any non-distress connection to ensure immediate transmission. Once the distress signal is received the MRCC will verify whether it is a false alarm. When confirmation is received (or if there is no further response) the MRCC will initiate SAR operations and send a distress signal relay to other vessels in the area.

Critically, the messaging architecture behind the GMDSS was designed to prevent incidents from happening in the first place by supporting the transmission of Maritime Safety Information (MSI) warnings that feature navigational hazards and approaching storms.

Although there have been enhancements over time, a full-scale modernisation will take advantage of significant advances in satellite infrastructure and maritime software and hardware.

The undertaking is a multi-year project, with the IMO estimating 2024 as the target year for new generation, data-rich GMDSS services based on the regulatory framework to be set by 2021.

Nevertheless, 2018 has proved pivotal for GMDSS, with only Inmarsat meeting the performance standard set by GMDSS. Its L-band FleetBroadband service was introduced in 2007, where services operate over the existing Inmarsat-4 constellation. Inmarsat’s new I-6 satellites, due in service in the early 2020s, will offer hybrid L-band/Ka-band connectivity. Additionally, Inmarsat’s new 1Mbps-plus maritime safety terminal incorporating FleetBroadband for voice and data communications and additional features (such as distress chat) remain part of the IMO’s performance approvals for Fleet Safety.

Today, Inmarsat’s Network Operations Centre (NOC) team receives notification of all distress signals and monitors MRCC responses to ensure they are acted upon. If for any reason the alert goes unanswered, an Inmarsat team member will contact the nearest MRCC to request urgent assistance.

In line with this established practice, Fleet Safety also includes the newly-developed RescueNet and SafetyNet II messaging services, superseding the existing messaging architecture that keeps ships at sea in touch with MRCCs.

Both SafetyNet II and RescueNet allow the message sender to monitor its status and see whether the message has been sent, scheduled, cancelled, and broadcast correctly. If a Fleet Safety Distress Alert is sent to an MRCC that is off-line, the system automatically redirects the signal to an appropriate, geographically-defined MRCC, with Inmarsat’s NOC also monitoring traffic. If a primary MRCC is offline for more than 60 seconds, the NOC is alerted and contacts the MRCC for assistance.

Working via Inmarsat C, Mini C and Fleet Safety, RescueNet is also already used by more than 20 countries, with the first multi-country SAR exercise to utilize the system being conducted by MRCC Riga in August 2018.

Although a timetable has been set for modernising GMDSS, the path towards interoperability and managing the multiple relationships between suppliers and MRCCs has not yet been announced.

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