VHF Radio requirements  –  compliance with the Merchant Shipping Act and Regulations , in light of Marine Notice 4 of 2015.

In 1979, the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue was drafted, which called for development of a global search and rescue plan. In addition a resolution was passed calling for development by IMO of a Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) to provide the communication support needed to implement the search and rescue plan.

The GMDSS was developed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the specialized agency of the United Nations with responsibility for ship safety and the prevention of marine pollution, in close co-operation with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and other international organizations, notably the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) and the COSPAS-SARSAT partners. The IMO amended the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention in 1988, and required ships subject to it to fit GMDSS equipment. The regulations governing the GMDSS are contained in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), 1974. The GMDSS requirements are contained in Chapter IV of SOLAS on Radio communications and were adopted in 1988..

Ship distress and safety communications entered a new era on 1 February 1999 with the full implementation of the GMDSS, which is an integrated communications system using satellite and terrestrial radio communications to ensure that no matter where a ship is in distress, aid can be dispatched. Furthermore the GMDSS provides an internationally agreed-upon set of safety procedures, types of equipment, and communication protocols used to increase safety and make it easier to rescue distressed ships, boats and aircraft. The system is intended to perform the following functions: alerting, search and rescue coordination, locating, maritime safety information broadcasts, general communications, and bridge-to-bridge communications. Specific radio carriage requirements depend upon the ship’s area of operation, rather than its tonnage. The system also provides redundant means of distress alerting, and emergency sources of power. In addition this system ensures the provision of Maritime Safety Information (MSI), both meteorological and navigational information, on a global basis at sea.

On the 10 March 2015, SAMSA issued Marine Notice No. 4 of 2015, titled “Cessation of 29 Mhz SOLAS Distress Watch Keeping by Telkom Maritime Services”. The marine notice was addressed to all regional managers, principal officers, small vessel skippers and operators, small vessel owners and affected parties and outlines the changes to Maritime Radio SOLAS watch keeping by Telkom Maritime Services and the changes in radio carriage requirements by small vessels ensuing from these changes. The notice provides some background stating that the Department of Transport renewed its SOLAS Service Agreement with Telkom on the 14th January 2014, in terms of which Telkom Maritime Services provides SOLAS distress watch keeping and Maritime Safety Information Services.

The SOLAS Service Agreement will be fully implemented by 01 July 2015 and South Africa shall be declared GMDSS Sea Area A1, which is defined as:

“A coastal area within the radiotelephone coverage of at least one VHF coast station in which continuous DSC alerting is available”.

Consequently, the existing analogue shore based radio equipment will be replaced by digital equipment. The old Voice-only VHF equipment is the traditional type, which relies entirely on the human voice for calling and communicating. Large commercial vessels are already required to carry digital equipment in terms of theMerchant Shipping (Radio Installations) Regulations, 2002. But for small vessels to interact with the digital equipment, a VHF radio with Digital Selective Calling capability is required, which will also ensure interoperability between all vessels. DSC is an advanced, computerized form of VHF and MF radio designed for marine use. They have all of the capabilities of the earlier radios and a number of new features that can add dramatically to the safety aspects and the usefulness of marine communications.

DSC automates many aspects of radio communication, for instance a user can make a distress call without using a handset, just by pressing one button on the radio. A DSC distress alert sent on VHF CH 70 will then automatically supply any shore based rescue centre and other vessels in the area with your identification and your location. In this manner the DSC radio operates much like an EPIRB that sends encoded “maydays” directly to satellites. You can even dial in the reason for the distress call. DSC will automatically repeat the distress call until it is acknowledged, useful in situations where the skipper is disabled.  If no shore-based emergency response station is within range, the DSC distress transmission will bounce from one DSC/VHF-equipped radio to another until it finds a shore-based station that returns an acknowledgement of your distress. By bouncing from one DSC/VHF radio to another, your distress signal can travel long distances, since each radio in the sequence repeats the signal. These digital communications result in visual messages being displayed on a receiver’s display screen similar to information displayed on a computer’s monitor.

If you make a digital call of any kind using DSC, your radio transmits the message on Channel 70; thus relieving congestion on Channel 16. All DSC equipped marine radios can be connected to a GPS, so your radio is “familiar” with your exact location and the exact time and sends out this information with a distress call. This in effect takes the “search” out of ‘search and rescue’.

DSC calls can be made directly to another vessel without broadcasting; thus being more private like a telephone call. As stated earlier, a DSC call does not use Channel 16. If the call is directed to an individual station, then that signal is sent on Channel 70 and only that station receives the call. The call can include the channel number on which you want to hold an ordinary conversation. Channel 70 is only used for digital communication; you cannot use voice on that channel. Furthermore you can store numbers that connect you to other vessels and your radio can keep a log of calls.

Much like a telephone, DSC radios must each have their own “contact” number referred to as the Maritime Mobile Service Identity number (MMSI). The MMSI number is nine digits long. The first three digits indicate the country followed by another six digits which are unique to the marine radio.

The Marine Notice states that Telkom Maritime Services will maintain VHF CH 16 aural watch keeping until April 2018 to allow all vessels to make the transition to DSC carriage. However, 29 Mhz and 2182 khz aural watch-keeping by Telkom will cease with effect from 01 July 2015.

Turning to the legal side of this article, the Merchant Shipping (National Small Vessel Safety) Regulations 2007 (NSVSR) applies to-

(a) every commercial small vessel-

(i) that is registered as a ship in the Republic in terms of the Ship Registration Act, 1998 (Act No.58 of 1998);

(ii) that is required to be licensed in terms of section 68 of the Act; and

(iii) in respect of which a local general safety certificate is required by virtue of section 203 of the Act.”

The definition of a “commercial small vessel” contained in the NSVS regulations read with definition of  a “small vessel” as described in the Merchant Shipping Act means a vessel of less than twenty-five gross tons and of more than three metres in length that is not a pleasure vessel, hence its application to small fishing vessels.

All commercial vessels must be either licensed or registered. Where any South African owned vessel leaves the South African Exclusive Economic Zone (200NM from land) they must be registered in accordance with the Ship Registration Act 1998.

Section 23 of the Marine Living Resources Act 18 of 1998 provides that no person shall use a fishing vessel or any other vessel to exercise any right of access unless a local fishing vessel licence has been issued to such person. Therefore in order to operate a local fishing vessel in South Africa, the vessel must be registered or licenced with the South African flag state. You must apply for a safety certificate from the South African Maritime Safety Authority and a fishing vessel licence from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in Cape Town.

Item 18, Annexure 2 of the Merchant Shipping (National Small Vessel Safety) Regulations 2007 requires category A, B, C and D vessels, subject to the regulations, to carry a Marine VHF radio or a 29 Mhz radio. These categories of vessels cover those operating any distance from shore to those vessels operating less than 5 nautical miles from shore. However, due to the cessation of the SOLAS watch keeping by the South African coast stations on 29 Mhz it will no longer be appropriate for small vessels to carry 29 Mhz radios as a safety option in terms of the Regulations. Categories of vessels covered by these regulations will now have to be equipped with VHF Marine Radios to comply with the safety requirements.

Moreover, NSVSR regulation 7 mandates that the owner and skipper of a vessel must ensure that items of safety appliances and equipment are provided and maintained on board the vessel in accordance with the requirements of Annexure 2 (as discussed above). Every person who contravenes this regulation commits an offence in terms of regulation 34 and is liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding 12 months. Furthermore the failure to equip a VHF DSC marine radio on a vessel will result in the vessel being unable to obtain a Certificate of Fitness (COF), and those vessels issued with certificates may have them cancelled by SAMSA. This will result in vessels being confined to port as they may not be operated anywhere in the Republic without a COF and doing so once again amounts to an offence in terms of the NSVS Regulations.

The Marine Notice concludes by stating that, vessels may continue to carry 29 Mhz radios as voluntary fit equipment for intership communications, communications with clubs etc., however, these radios will no longer be appropriate to fulfil the safety requirements of the regulations from 01 July 2015.

In light of this notice we advise that all vessel owners, making use of 29 Mhz radios or old non DSC enabled VHF radios, adhere to SAMSA’s recommendations and replace their radio with a VHF DSC capable marine radio to ensure compliance with the regulations and more importantly to safeguard life at sea.

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