New STCW rules require competence in safe navigation using ECDIS

In the age of ECDIS navigation, the important thing to realize is that it is not about the ECDIS; it is about keeping abreast of the conditions outside — visibility, shallows, traffic — and your own ship’s position and progress.

After that, it is really all about the charts. Simplifying the objectives helps keep ECDIS use in the middle of the underway navigational context. Ironically, for those who define ECDIS competency as familiarization and who feel that ECDIS use is easily layered onto existing navigational skills, the simple approach — conditions and charts — is much too demanding. But it is time to accept that learning to navigate safely with ECDIS is an achievable goal. Arriving at this accidentally is not the only accident that is likely to occur.

Kings Point Midshipman Sean Sheehy in the school’s integrated navigation lab during an electronic navigation course. Radar is on the right and ECDIS to the left. The central display simulates the view from the bridge as Sheehy controls his vessel’s movement and interacts with other vessels that can be independently controlled by students on up to 16 other bridges. (Christian Hempstead photo)

Training in safe navigation using ECDIS is now a primary requirement in the STCW-2010 Manila Amendments for all mates and masters standing watch on vessels fitted with ECDIS. The new ECDIS competency requirements of Tables A-II/1 and A-II/2 for vessels of 3,000 gross tons or more (and A-II/3 for less than 3,000 gross tons, for that matter) are clear and detailed: ECDIS must contribute to the safety of navigation.

There are six basic navigational objectives listed for the third mate/second mate group (operational level), and seven more oversight-related objectives listed for the chief mate/master group (management level). That is Part A, the Code, the requirements of STCW. These will be applied and assessed to varying extents in approved training courses that will deliver the ECDIS certificate.

In Part B, the guidance section of STCW-2010, there are 30 additional paragraphs in Table B-I/12, all loaded with bullet points suggesting approaches to training and assessment in the operational use of ECDIS. The new Code and Guidance together constitute a significant departure from old STCW-95 by any measure. There the edict had been a single reference, and only for the third mate/second mate level: ECDIS equals charts. While that turns out to be truer than most mariners and rule-makers could have foreseen, it showed a disregard for the challenges of learning to navigate with ECDIS as a way of life, especially for those really responsible for the overall seaworthiness of their ship.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2012, less than a year away, any officer standing a navigational watch on any vessel subject to SOLAS where an ECDIS is installed must be certified as competent in safe ECDIS navigation. Specifically, every third mate and second mate must be competent in the “use of ECDIS to maintain the safety of navigation.†And as a major step from STCW-95, every chief mate and master must be competent to “maintain the safety of navigation through the use of ECDIS and associated navigation systems to assist command decision making.†These are Column 1 competencies from the new STCW.

What hasn’t changed is the footnote reference to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Model Course for ECDIS (MC 1.27) as a suggestion for accomplishing the required competence. As it currently stands, the 10-year old MC 1.27 offers no guidance on assessment. However, the following description of an approach to training and assessment in ECDIS navigation is part of a proposed revision to that Model Course, and is currently under IMO review.

Just within the last few years, there have been allisions, collisions and groundings where investigations and analyses showed that better use of ECDIS would have improved if not mitigated the outcome, particularly in the case of groundings. Considered generally, tasks performed incorrectly on the ECDIS can result in personal injury or loss of life, harm to the environment or significant damage to equipment.

Deriving the following three critical competencies from these is straightforward enough:

• Maintain situational awareness while using ECDIS, including confirmation of position sensor accuracy by alternate means.

• Safely monitor displayed information, including the efficient adjustment to changing conditions.

• Use ECDIS functions involving the integration with other sensors, including (when fitted) alternate position source, sounder, ARPA, AIS and radar overlay.

Although emphasizing the correct use of ECDIS, the scope of these skills is too broad to be assessed in a practical way. There are in fact 90 or more crucial tasks to master on a typical user-friendly ECDIS. That long list needs to be taken in order of the tasks’ priority to navigation, and should be divided into three levels: Basic operation, intermediate and navigator. For some brands of ECDIS, there may be considerably more, but the levels remain the same. The navigator level constitutes the skills required for management of ECDIS — chart data installation and licensing, updates, configuration with sensors, log files, playback, archival, etc. The other two levels constitute maintaining the display, and monitoring the route (basic); and creating, checking and adapting routes and schedules, user layers, target information, alarm functions, environment data, logging, and manual corrections (intermediate).

Competence in safe navigation using ECDIS implies, by definition, demonstration of the basic and intermediate tasks in an underway context. The ability to observe and score the effectiveness of such use of ECDIS demands a method of chunking that is part way between the three critical competencies and the 60 or more tasks of the basic and intermediate levels.

One method with proven effectiveness is to create 10 navigational task groups. These are:

1. Use all navigation systems interfaced with ECDIS.

2. Verify settings of interfaced sensors.

3. Check that ECDIS settings conform to procedures.

4. Monitor information on ECDIS for safe navigation.

5. Verify position by alternate means.

6. Adjust settings to suit conditions and adapt to changing conditions.

7. Use ECDIS-managed track control autopilot.

8. Maneuver according to accepted navigational practice and with regard to ColRegs.

9. Responses to role play with regards to ECDIS use.

10. Manage AIS and assess environmental conditions.

Each task group consists of a cluster of tasks with very little overlap between groups. Effective grouping of tasks helps keep the ECDIS training and assessment in the context of navigation. As an example, the following tasks constitute Task Group 6:

• Set day/night palette.

• Customize chart layers for low clutter.

• Use dual panel in full-screen mode.

• Apply route plan schedule for ETA.

• Display ETA and speed made good.

• Use appropriate orientation (NU/CU) and mode (TM/RM).

• Revise route as needed.

• Create and/or apply user layers as needed.

• Apply and adjust radar overlay.

The instructor’s role throughout the training course is to demonstrate the tasks, preferably in a classroom environment equipped with simulation-activated ECDIS units, and to structure the practice in ways that are conducive to learning to navigate using ECDIS. In other words, the demonstrations and practice should occur in underway exercises where the mastery of basic and intermediate skills clearly contributes to safer navigation.

The final assessment occurs in a comprehensive exercise that involves all the task groups more or less equally, and quite importantly, not in an overwhelming situation. The instructor observes (by remote monitoring) and analyzes each trainee’s navigation with ECDIS in a non-disruptive yet detailed manner.

Using scores of 1, 2, or 3 for each applied task to indicate degree of command of the skill, the instructor scores the effectiveness of ECDIS use for each trainee in the exercise. When the exercise has come to a logical end, the instructor tallies the scored tasks by groups. The minimum passing score for this form of underway competency should be 70 percent.

At present, the U.S. Coast Guard is preparing a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in which domestic regulations are aligned with STCW-95 as amended in 2010. Recent recommendations from the Ship Operations Cooperative Program (SOCP) for the new ECDIS training requirements appear to be in accordance with “an approved training course.†In other words, the National Maritime Center does not intend to compile STCW Control Sheets for ECDIS competence. It seems reasonable to expect that sooner rather than later, the NMC should revisit its approval of ECDIS training courses for compliance with STCW-2010 proficiencies, methods and criteria. It also seems reasonable to ask why the NMC is not taking the same approach with all certificate-bearing STCW courses.

The navigational reality now is that the electronic chart and its host system — whether standalone, type-approved, integrated with thrusters, worn on the i-sleeve of your jacket or a translucent overlay on a wheelhouse window — are here to stay. As we currently encounter the ECDIS, it is designed to govern the autopilot at the very least, and the watch standing officer — junior and senior alike — must be able to manage all of the digital devices attached to the ECDIS without any reduction in attention to analog skills like plotting on the backup paper chart, cross checking the DGPS position by an alternate source, spotting and tracking targets on radar, visual scanning out the windows, even sighting bearings, peering through binoculars, preserving night vision, speaking clearly, overcoming fatigue and complacency, etc.

Now is not the time to allow the neutering of navigation training. This demand for mental integration of all forms of real time data and awareness does not just happen through the good intentions of STCW and licensing. It is behavior born of habit and dedication to a craft. Developing such habit requires well-designed practice and real-time assessment in an environment unburdened by dire consequence.

To gain direction in the creation and preservation of this process of skill development, trainers, course approvers, shipping managers and, of course, those who bear all the responsibility, the ship’s master, must read closely into STCW-2010 for a specific outline of what “safe navigation using ECDIS†really consists of.

Christian Hempstead teaches integrated navigation at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent those of USMMA or the U.S. Maritime Administration.

By Professional Mariner Staff