IMO COMSAR 12 – 16 March 2012

The IMO’s Committee on Communications, Search and Rescue held its 16th Session on Monday 12 through Friday 16 March 2012 under the Chairmanship of Mr C. Delgado of Chile. A Drafting Group, 2 Working Groups and a Technical Working Group were formed outwith the over-arching Plenary Session. Following is a short summary of salient points emerging from the meeting on items of greatest interest to members :

• GLOBAL MARITIME DISTRESS AND SAFETY SYSTEM (GMDSS). A draft revised Work Plan on a new unplanned output “The Revision and modernisation of the GMDSS system” was approved by the Committee as also were the draft terms of reference for the intersessional work to be done between MSC 90 and COMSAR 17. The United Arab Emirates made the point quite strongly that the amount of information to be provided by any prospective GMDSS satellite service provider would be considerable and since COMSAR would have to request IMSO to undertake evaluation of same, the ensuing costs should be studied carefully and levied appropriately so as not to discourage any new satellite service providers from applying. This point was reflected in the subsequent draft Circular for approval by MSC on ‘Guidance to prospective GMDSS satellite service providers’ and note was taken that the Joint IMO/ITU Experts Group would meet from 8 through 12 October 2012.

• DISTRESS PRIORITY COMMUNICATIONS IN THE SHORE –TO-SHIP DIRECTION VIA INMARSAT. Member Governments, SAR authorities and RCC’s were informed of a new service provided by INMARSAT with respect to distress priority communications in the shore-to-ship direction for which a dedicated 7-digit PIN code would be issued on request.

• NON-RESPONSIVE SPOCS. The IMO secretariat was invited to remind administrations of Member states with a low response rate, of the importance of a reliable test call response of their SPOCS. It was agreed that the Organisation’s Technical Co-operation Committee should be informed of the perceived need for some countries (identified in COMSAR 16/5/2) for capacity-building and technical assistance to help ensure timely response of their SPOC’s upon receiving distress alerts.

• GUIDE FOR COLD WATER SURVIVAL. Minor amendments only were made to the guidance in MSC.1/Circular1185 on this important subject.

• INCLUSION OF “NUMBER OF PERSONS ON BOARD” IN THE AIS MESSAGE DATA STRUCTURE. It was agreed that SAR services would benefit greatly from the mandatory inclusion of the “number of persons on board” in the AIS message field although no consensus could be reached on the mandatory application for class A and class B equipment.

• MANUAL ACTIVATION OF EPIRBS. The recommendation of the ICAO/IMO Joint Working Group that Seafarers should view EPIRBs not only as a last resort device but also that manual activation may be considered at an early stage was agreed. However, Australia cautioned that a two-way communication between ships and SAR services is always preferable to that of one-way and every effort should be made to establish two-way communications before activating EPIRB so that the rescue services are made aware of an emergency as early as is feasible.

• GLOBAL SAR PLAN/GISIS INFORMATION ON SAR. There was unanimous support to use the Organisation’s GISIS system in order to update information on the availability of SAR services for which a draft COMSAR Circular was agreed.

• SMART PHONE APPLICATIONS AND EMAIL ALERTS. It was agreed that there could be significant safety risks associated with software applications that offered SAR alert notification by email and a draft COMSAR circular was developed to highlight this issue to Administrations, including recommendations on means to reduce the safety risk.

• SATELLITE EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION DEVICES (SENDS). Concern was expressed over the different approaches used by individual SEND service providers to alert SAR authorities that the SOS function is activated. The merits of combining the capabilities of a SEND unit with the 406 MHz distress beacon capability was recognised noting that manufacturers of any such combined device would have to apply the standards established by Cospas-Sarsat.

• SAR/GALILEO RETURN LINK SERVICE. The WG’s proposal on the acceptability of a Return Link Message(RLM) Type 1 plus optional inclusion of this particular functionality within distress beacons was duly endorsed.

• DEVELOPMENTS IN MARITIME RADIOCOMMUNICATION SYSTEMS AND TECHNOLOGY. O SAR concerns of an operational nature were expressed concerning Man-Over-Board and similar devices using AIS-SART (Search and Rescue Transponder) technology, in particular, the possibility for confusion arising when interpreting alert messages generated by such equipment. The AIS-SART symbol displayed on their equipment could indicate not only a SART but also potentially a Man-Over-Board or even a diver in difficulty. Difficulties arising in the interpretation of this symbol, along with the established text message SART ACTIVE, when used for Man Overboard and similar devices will be forwarded to the NAV Sub-Committee.

• DEVELOPMENT OF MEASURES TO AVOID FALSE DISTRESS ALERTS. The Republic of Korea made proposals concerning the inadequate size of distress alarm buttons, their lack of location specification and also the need for a standardised system of audio and visual indications for the alarm. Apart from the IEC, these ergonomic suggestions were not overly supported by others but they will be further considered under development of e-navigation and review of the GMDSS.

• CONSIDERATION OF LRIT-RELATED MATTERS. This item generated more debate than any other. General comments from Governments were that (1) None disagreed that the cost of audit is increasingly too expensive. (2) The audit requirements are overly demanding, in particular, their frequency. (3) Some DCs are unwilling to be audited or not audited due to the cost of such audit. (4) Suspension of operations or penalisation of DCs which were not audited in a timely manner or could not demonstrate compliance with the relevant provisions of LRIT were unfair. Tuvalu regarded LRIT as an unbalanced system in that the big administrations can sell their data to offset their costs whereas the small ones cannot do so thus they carry a big financial burden. Marshall Islands sagely remarked that the fee is a consequence of the [increasing] IMSO budget and the obvious solution would be for them to reduce that budget. The Chairman undertook to report to MSC that COMSAR did not agree with the suspension of unaudited or non-compliant DC’s given that this is a political decision. A proposal recommending the use of dedicated LRIT shipborne equipment found no agreement.

• OPERATING ANOMALIES IDENTIFIED WITHIN ECDIS. This is a worry. A meeting of interested parties convened by UK revealed that a number of different ECDIS equipments had been identified as not performing to standard. Eighteen anomalies, i.e. unanticipated behaviour were identified, which included the possibility of significant charted features, e.g. wrecks not displaying appropriately with obvious implications for safety of navigation. IHO has since hosted a technical workshop, the outcome of which has been reported to MSC 90. On the specific issue of communicating important safety-related information concerning ECDIS to mariners, IHO advised that the NAVAREA Coordinator should retain responsibility for deciding what messages should be issued.

Captain Paddy McKnight

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