STCW amendments to force 'big shift' in ECDIS training

Though mariners face new certification requirements for Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) this year, the maritime industry may not be ready to provide the training to meet them.

Those affected by revisions to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) that took effect Jan. 1 are clamoring for more information, but the U.S. Coast Guard has yet to formalize regulations.

"The Coast Guard has definitely moved slowly on this," said Christian Hempstead, an associate professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) who contributed to the STCW revisions. "That's a big shift in the training requirements that hasn't been fully appreciated yet."

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) began a comprehensive review of the STCW Convention and Code in 2007. Three years later it adopted amendments from the review that became effective this year. Last August, the Coast Guard proposed implementation of all the amendments and changes to domestic endorsements, but it has not ratified the IMO implementation schedule.

ECDIS adoption remains voluntary in the U.S., where it's not yet considered a sufficient substitute for paper charts. In 2008, the IMO accepted recommendations to make ECDIS compulsory. It adopted new carriage requirements a year later for vessels to have both a primary ECDIS and a backup arrangement that can duplicate the additional functions — requirements also implemented on a rolling schedule beginning this year.

The STCW amendments treat ECDIS as a negative endorsement, which means it's only mentioned on a mariner's certification if he or she has not qualified.

"This means that even under the 2010 STCW, there is still nothing to put on your documents unless you are not qualified for ECDIS," said James Cavo, with the Coast Guard's Mariner Credentialing Program Policy Division, adding that the Coast Guard's proposed rule is consistent.

Certification is not required for those who serve exclusively on ships not fitted with ECDIS, but the new carriage requirements mean the number of mariners affected by training regulations will grow each year. The demand for qualified instructors will grow with it. Paul Welling, navigation systems sales manager for Washington-based Transas, said he anticipates as many as 250,000 mariners worldwide will need to be trained.

"At the moment there's a shortage of qualified trainers, because it's not only the ECDIS training that needs to get done, but also the type-specific training," Welling said. Mariners must be trained on the same ECDIS system installed aboard their vessels.

"We're working diligently with schools in the U.S. to get them upgraded to the right equipment and to get their instructors trained," he said. "There's expense related to that, and we're doing the best we can to get these schools ready to go. Worldwide, it's a bigger problem, because there's not enough schools, in my opinion."

Greg Wood, technical manager for the Florida-based Resolve Maritime Academy, agreed with Welling's assessment. "The IMO model course set some potential requirements for trainers as recommendations," he said. "It might be difficult finding people who are well versed in ECDIS that can instruct."

Hempstead, who teaches an ECDIS course at the USMMA in Kings Point, N.Y., said there is a finite number of qualified instructors who also have experience navigating with ECDIS.

"One reason for that is, it's all fairly new," he said. "To be able to handle several different systems and have five to 10 years of experience — is a combination of skills that's rare as can be in this business." Trainers need to know the different manufacturers' equipment inside and out, as well as the systems' contextual applications.

"It's one thing to be familiar with it, but it's another to navigate with it," Hempstead said. "It's like driving — you can't learn from a classroom. And you can't learn from the backseat."

He compares it to the early days of radar and automatic radar plotting aid (ARPA) training, when the systems were taught in classrooms without the use of simulators. "Some courses are applying the ECDIS training by using the radar training paradigm, which is crowding a bunch of people in a dark room around a terminal," he said. "That doesn't work for ECDIS. You need to navigate with it to really understand it. There are only 12 or 14 things you can do on an ARPA, but there are a lot more on an ECDIS, and it can control the ship. We've really got to push the visualization aspect of training."

Capt. Jerry Pannell, director of training at the STAR Center in Florida, cited the rise in accident rates after radar became ubiquitous in the 1950s as an example of the learning curve mariners face any time they are required to learn new equipment. "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."

Transas' Welling agreed, and said navigating with ECDIS is “totally different than with paper charts."

"The procedures are different, the whole idea and approach are totally different," he said. "You really need people who know what it is and who have sailed with it to teach students what it is all about." To that end, Transas runs weeklong "train the trainers' courses that go over every piece of the equipment instructors will need to know to train mariners, he said.

The Resolve Maritime Academy, in Fort Lauderdale, unveiled a new ECDIS training lab in January to meet the coming need for training, Wood said. The move came about as part of a response to a Request for Proposal put out by Royal Caribbean International cruise line.

"It was one of the items we wanted to have available, one of the things we wanted to offer," he said — "not just to Royal Caribbean, but to everyone."

Transas provided ECDIS simulation equipment for the lab. Wood said the school intends to add systems from Sperry Marine — the system used by Royal Caribbean — and others. "We're just starting up," he said. "We set up a temporary ECDIS lab and did one course. We got Coast Guard site- and course-approval, sort of as a prototype course, but we're still in the stage of building out our final facility."

Once the Coast Guard finalizes its proposed rule changes — a move not expected until all public comments have been reviewed — schools will have to petition the agency for formal acceptance of their training programs. Adopted rules will be phased in over the next five years. Current credentials and endorsements should continue to be honored by port state inspectors in the U.S. and around the world until January 2017.

By Professional Mariner Staff