Maitland: Lessons of the Titanic 1912-2012, Part 2


The following is Part 2 of a four-part series on the legacies of the Titanic disaster:

Communications and the Vessel in Distress

The Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, first adopted in 1914 as a consequence of the TITANIC casualty and now sponsored by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), complemented the International Radiotelegraph Convention and its International Telecommunications Union (ITU) radio regulation successors. SOLAS focused on mandating radio watchkeeping and defining carriage requirements for ships, while ITU radio regulations addressed distress radio frequency allocations radio procedures and personnel licensing, and radio equipment technical standards.

Lessons learned from the casualty affected regulations and procedures for shipboard distress and safety radiocommunications equipment still in existence today. Such technological innovations as radio-telephone, amplitude modulation, single sideband on 2182 kHz and later yet, very high frequency modulation on 156.8 MHz, were adopted in these conventions, as were automatic watchkeeping receivers and electronics based first on electron tubes, then transistors, and finally integrated circuit devices.

Nevertheless, Morse telegraphy distress watchkeeping on 500 kHz, first established by regulation on the 1906 International Radiotelegraph Convention and used by the TITANIC, remained the primary international maritime distress system until the end of the 20th century.

On Aug. 27, 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed the Communications Satellite Act, establishing the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) to create a commercial satellite network. With the support of the U.S. Navy, COMSAT began operating MARISAT, the first maritime mobile satellite system in 1976 when three geostationary satellites were successfully launched over the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.

In 1966, the Inter-governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (predecessor to International Maritime Organization) appointed a panel of experts to investigate the possibilities of creating a maritime satellite system to improve maritime communications. In 1973, it hosted the first of a series of conference to establish an international organization to operate such a system; and, from 1975 to 1976, a new intergovernmental organization named the International Maritime Satellite Organization (INMARSAT) worked to improve maritime, aeronautical, and land mobile communications. COMSAT became the U.S. representative to Inmarsat; and, in early 1982, Inmarsat commenced operations using leased MARISAT maritime satellites.

Upon Inmarsat’s successful start, the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization’s radiocommunications subcommittee began developing a maritime distress and safety system. ITU convened world administrative radio conferences in 1983 and 1987 in support of this effort. IMO adopted the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) in 1988, as an amendment to the SOLAS Convention. This new system replaced the Morse radiotelegraphy system in place at the time of the TITANIC casualty. GMDSS itself started to come into force on an incremental basis in 1993. It came into full effect on Feb. 1, 1999.

GMDSS is a system of systems, comprised of Inmarsat satellite earth stations, satellite emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs) maintained by the COSPAS-SARAT system, VHF, and MF/HF radio equipped with digital selective calling, search and rescue transponders, and maritime safety information receivers.

This technology eliminated the need for the radio officer position on ships and 500 kHz watchstanding positions ashore, and helped to fund GMDSS implementation. The International Hydrographic Organization, World Meteorological Organization, and IMO cooperatively established a worldwide system of navigational and meteorological areas by which GMDSS-equipped ships traveling anywhere on the globe could be assured of receiving relevant and timely navigational warnings, meteorological forecasts and warnings, search and rescue alerts, and ice warnings prepared by the International Ice Patrol.

Under the SOLAS Convention, equipment carriage on ships was based upon the establishment of four areas of radio coverage:

·        Sea Area A1 within VHF coverage ashore (~20 nm);
·        Sea Area A2 based upon medium frequency coverage from shore (~70 nm);
·        Sea Area A3 based upon Inmarsat’s satellite footprint;
·        Sea Area A4 for polar regions outside of Inmarsat’s footprint.

With the later closing of most coast stations, Sea Area A3 became the default for most installations. In the U.S., Sea Area A2 was planned but never implemented and Sea Area A1 is being delayed until the end of 2012. While Sea Area A4’s HF operations are still supported, the Coast Guard has no HF stations neat the Arctic and GMDSS coverage there remains poor.

While GMDSS provided a clear and demonstrable improvement in maritime communications and in maritime safety, it wasn’t an unqualified success. Digital selective calling, for example, assumed the existence of a public coast marine operator network, an assumption that proved wrong when such coast stations began disappearing as GMDSS came into force. Additionally, a high false-alert rate induced more than one ship to shut off the digital selective calling-equipped radios.

Presently, new technology to replace elements of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System is being developed. One example is the Automatic Identification System, a shipborne autonomous broadcast system that acts like a transponder and is already used on ships for navigation, vessel traffic management, and maritime domain awareness. IMO has already adopted the Automatic Identification System search and rescue transmitter as an element of the GDMSS, and IMO and ITU are investigating using AIS for distress communications as well. A scoping exercise on GMDSS modernization is nearing completion; and, if successful, full-scale planning may proceed.

Except possibly for such specialized equipment as the satellite EPIRB, the next generation GMDSS will likely not consist of specialized shipborne equipment at all, but instead may become embedded within the ship’s communications and software systems, with capabilities provided to the mariner as part of an existing integrated navigation system display. Maritime safety broadcasts and distress messages will likely be graphically displayed, with communications largely by short message service or chat, backed by broadband communications systems.

Following the sinking of the TITANIC, it was recognized that there was a need to quickly identify other vessels in the vicinity of a ship in distress, so that assistance could be brought to bear. The arrival of computer technology has made this dream a reality, starting with the creation of the Atlantic Merchant Vessel Emergency Reporting (Amver) System. Within two years, Amver had grown to more than 5,000 volunteer ship participants. Shortly thereafter, foreign rescue coordination centers began using Amver plots for search and rescue, and the system has become a valuable tool now employed globally for search and rescue. Over the years, participation has grown to more than 20,000 ships, and Amver currently saves an average of one life every 33 hours.

As I mention elsewhere in my discussion, in connection with “Operation Black Swan,” mass rescue operations are a major concern. As was the case a century ago, the limited number of resources that may be available in a given crisis presents a major challenge. A case arising outside the territorial seas of Canada or the United States may result in much greater complexity and lengthier responses, due to the elapsed transit time to offshore positions, and the possibility that other ships may not be in the area. At the time of the RMS TITANIC incident, the ship was carrying the most modern radio system available, and the radio officer was able to transmit a distress call via Morse code. Since that ill-fated night, communications equipment, distress notification, and search planning technology has advanced tremendously. The initial notification in a search and rescue case is the trigger that activates the search and rescue system — bringing awareness of the incident to the search and rescue mission coordinator. Rapid notification with a position of the incident at the outset is critical to the success of response efforts, allowing search and rescue mission coordinators to launch the appropriate rescue craft directly to the location. As such, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System enables mariners to utilize a combination of very high frequency, high frequency, and medium frequency radios, in addition to Imarsat Satellite System capabilities, to communicate and receive distress information between vessels and shore stations.

Today, the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme relays emergency beacon distress signals between ships and shore stations via satellite. The vast benefit of a modern communication system of this nature is that cumulative improvements in the system ensure that distress signals are received much more promptly by search and rescue authorities, with much greater information that can be use to coordinate a response. This means that a global search and rescue system is being developed; when activated anywhere in the world, a distress beacon signal is relayed to the satellite, and is then received by the mission control center. This in turn sends the position to the appropriate rescue coordination center for action; the beacon registry database will be accessed to obtain amplifying information for the ship in question.

Moreover, a variety of small of portable electronic devices can provide the distress alert itself, and serve as a means of locating those in distress, communicating with responders, and transmitting geographic coordinates.

All the same, expansion in the Arctic and Antarctic regions raises new challenges. As commercial shipping, transportation and tourism continue to grow, further technological developments will no doubt be needed in radio and satellite communications. The COSTA CONCORDIA and other recent incidents point the way to a more broadly-based approach to search and rescue, based upon the need to compensate for the perennial problem of human error.

Coming soon: Part 3, SOLAS, IMO and International Oversight; Polar Navigation and the North Atlantic Ice Patrol; Exposure to Liability

Clay Maitland is a maritime industry leader who is Managing Partner of International Registries Inc. and Founding Chairman of the North America Marine Environment Protection Association. He can be reached at or through his website/blog at

By Professional Mariner Staff