It will be another seven years before a comprehensively updated GMDSS enters into force internationally, writes Aline De Bièvre
IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) approved a modernisation plan for the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), which saves hundreds of seafarers’ lives every year, at its recent June session (MSC 98). The plan will require comprehensive amendments to Solas Chapters III and IV, together with related and consequential amendments to other existing IMO instruments.
However, the committee decided to extend the implementation of enforcement of these Solas changes to 2024. It decided on 2022 as a realistic target year for completion of the modernisation work and for its formal adoption of the draft amendments. The effective entry into force would then follow in 2024, subject to fulfilment of the Solas tacit amendment procedure.
GMDSS was adopted in 1988 and became fully implemented in 1999. Inmarsat continues to be the sole IMO-recognised GMDSS service provider to date. However, it is expected that the application of Iridium for recognition as an additional provider will receive formal approval at MSC 99 in May 2018.
The committee will base its decision on the final technical assessment of Iridium’s capability as a mobile satellite service provider conducted by the International Mobile Satellite Organization (IMSO). Inmarsat has also applied to gain formal approval of GMDSS on its FleetBroadband services, and expects to obtain this at MSC 99, according to Inmarsat Maritime senior vice president of safety and security Peter Broadhurst.
Acknowledging the need to replace existing Solas references to Inmarsat with the generic reference “recognised mobile satellite service,” MSC 98 agreed a definition of the term for the purposes of Solas Chapter IV. This definition is also needed in order to avoid inconsistencies with the radio regulations of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which accords a different meaning to the term.
Other safety communications decisions taken at MSC 98 include the formal adoption of a new MSC resolution recommending generic performance standards for every ship earth station that operates on a mobile satellite service recognised by IMO for use in the GMDSS.
The resolution distinguishes between a mobile satellite service recognised before January 2021 and one that is recognised after that point in time. It also allows a transitional period to maintain current equipment functionality. Inmarsat C and Fleet 77 are designated as legacy systems and services under Section 7 of IMO Assembly Resolution 1001(25), which covers the criteria and requirements for the provision of mobile satellite communication systems in the GMDSS.
MSC 98 also approved draft texts for amendments to Solas chapter IV, together with revised equipment certificates to incorporate the generic reference 'recognised mobile satellite service' in order to address the anticipated future use of mobile satellite services for the GMDSS. Their formal adoption is expected at MSC 99, which will also decide on their entry-into-force date.
Meanwhile, the huge task of updating GMDSS will mainly fall on IMO’s sub-committee on safety of navigation, communication, and search and rescue (NCSR). Starting from the NCSR 5 session in February 2018, a total of four sessions are foreseen to complete the work, with support from other sub-committees – for example, with regard to the development of new model courses to address seafarers’ training needs.
The revision is driven by the urgent need to adapt GMDSS to the use of modern communications systems and to discard carriage requirements for obsolete systems that ships no longer use to meet the functional requirement of the GMDSS. There is also a compelling need to harmonise the IMO provisions with the ITU’s radio regulations.
The modernised GMDSS will herald the introduction of terrestrial communications using digital technologies for receiving maritime safety information. It will provide for enhanced and more reliable search and rescue capabilities by including the Cospas-Sarsat meosar system. New carriage requirements for search and rescue-locating devices on lifeboats and liferafts are under consideration. Existing ships will be able to continue using their existing communications systems, in accordance with the customary grandfathering principle.
The revision will also take account of IMO’s work related to developments in e-navigation as these have implications for both radio- and satellite-based communications.