Compulsory ECDIS carriage rule creates need for training

It has been two years since the International Maritime Organization (IMO) moved toward adopting mandatory carriage rules for Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS), and the first implementation date is approaching.

In 1995, the IMO first announced performance standards for ECDIS, which integrates with other shipboard systems to provide a wealth of information not available through traditional paper chart or basic electronic navigation. Seven years later it made ECDIS a suitable option for vessels under SOLAS requirements, provided they also carried a reliable backup.

In 2008 the IMO accepted recommendations to make ECDIS compulsory, and adopted the new regulations a year later. They take effect on a rolling schedule that begins in 2012. The rules require vessels to have both a primary ECDIS and a backup arrangement that can duplicate the additional functions ECDIS offers over paper charts.

The regulations mandate changes in the provision of charts and shore-to-vessel corrections. Charts can be updated by CD-ROM/DVD or by satellite or Internet connection, and new charts can be purchased online. Prior to a ship’s departure, crew must obtain updated charts — which include additional, relevant information — for the intended voyage.

ECDIS does more than just replace paper charts, said Lee Alexander, a research associate professor of electronic chart technology at the University of New Hampshire who chaired the group that developed the type-approval tests for an IMO-compliant ECDIS. It provides a new — and potentially much better — way to navigate.

ECDIS units can use two types of electronic charts, vector and raster. Raster charts are simply paper charts digitized with a scanner. Vector charts are standardized navigational databases created digitally. Vector charts that conform to International Hydrographic Organization specs are called electronic navigational charts, or ENCs, and often contain additional information over paper charts.

The IMO permits the use of approved raster charts when ENCs are not available, and some ECDIS units can also use private charts, which are not IMO-approved. Currently more than half of all SOLAS vessels carry ECDIS equipment, but many aren’t using official ENCs, either through circumstance or choice. That means, essentially, that they’re not using the units as ECDIS.

“Mariners are going to have to start using the approved charts,” said Alexander, drawing the analogy to how personal computers replaced typewriters. They’re more than just a new way to type documents, and when you add an Internet connection, they become portals for tremendous amounts of information.

Like computers, which are limited without links to the Internet, ECDIS units are dependent upon good data and hydrographic offices in some parts of the world are struggling to provide approved ENCs, he said.

“The data is going to be a problem in some areas, but hopefully not for major shipping routes and ports,” he said.

Another concern for the maritime industry is training. In June the IMO was voting to adopt revisions to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) for Seafarers that included requirements for ECDIS certification, said Christian Hempstead, an associate professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy who contributed to the revisions.

“The training requirements are saying, look, if you’re on a ship as a watch officer at any level — in terms of STCW, that means management or operational — and that ship has ECDIS on it, you’ve got to have a certificate,” he said. “That’s a big shift in the training requirements that hasn’t been fully appreciated yet. I think the carriage requirements are going to take second fiddle to this when it hits the street.”

Specifics of the STCW requirements or implementation schedule were not available at press time.

Capt. Jerry Pannell, director of training at the Simulation, Training, Assessment and Research Center in Florida, said any time you introduce new equipment onto the bridge and ask people to use it, there’s going to be a learning curve. Pannell points to the rise in accident rates after radar became ubiquitous in the 1950s.

“We knew what it could do, but we didn’t know what it couldn’t do,” he said. “It led to a fixation with the equipment, relying on the computer. I fully expect that as we integrate ECDIS.”

By Professional Mariner Staff