FCC agrees to collect DSC emergency data

From Ocean Navigator #135
January/February 2004
Reversing a previous policy, the Federal Communications Commission has

agreed to collect information previously recommended by the International Maritime Organization and the U.S. Coast Guard when issuing maritime mobile service identity (MMSI) numbers for radios with digital-selective calling (DSC) capability.

DSC capability enables a vessel station to call other stations automatically and avoid the congestion often plaguing channel 16 (in the case of VHF). A vessel distress alert from a DSC radio will instantly identify the sender via the unique MMSI number assigned that vessel, thereby providing the Coast Guard with access to the critical descriptive and shore contact information that is collected and recorded as a database when the numbers are issued.

Here’s a little historical background: Realizing that search-and-rescue operations could be improved significantly if the recorded database on radio-equipped vessels contained important descriptive and contact information, the Coast Guard, with the FCC participating, formulated an input paper for the United States to submit to the IMO. The IMO agreed and passed a resolution to that effect in November 1999.

Assignment of an MMSI number is within the province of the FCC and is issued with the station license, and at that time, the data are recorded. However, it became obvious that although many (mainly recreational) vessels did not require station licensure (this requirement was phased out), certain boatowners were caught in the catch-22 of requiring the MMSI number for their DSC radios but couldn’t be issued one unless they applied for an FCC license – which they were otherwise not required to have.

Due to the initiative of BoatU.S., the FCC was persuaded to allow nongovernmental entities to issue the numbers to those vessels “licensed by rule” – that is, those not required to be station-licensed if they do not carry MF/HF equipment and do not voyage internationally. As part of the arrangement, the FCC required those issuing entities to collect a full database of information. (BoatU.S. and Sea Tow are authorized to issue MMSI numbers to that group.)

Despite the FCC’s requirement that the private entities issuing MMSI numbers (to those vessels not requiring station licenses) collect the full data, the FCC was unwilling to collect the same complete data set as recommended by the IMO, arguing that that information wasn’t required for licensing – despite the fact that the purpose was to facilitate search and rescue.

The irony was that while the Coast Guard would have access to more complete SAR information on a smaller vessel, a larger vessel (likely carrying more passengers and farther offshore) with an FCC-issued license and thus minimal recorded SAR information would not have that same critical data recorded and available in an emergency.

The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System Implementation Task Force submitted a petition to the secretary of the FCC on Aug. 16, 2002, requesting that the Commission collect the full MMSI data set, setting forth in detail the importance of the information in being able to carry out SAR missions effectively and to minimize false alerts that were a drain on assets and potential diversions from bona-fide emergencies. Despite continued informal discussions, the FCC’s attitude was that the data was “not required by the FCC for the licensing process.”

In 2003, the FCC finally agreed to collect the information. As a result of the GMDSS Task Force’s efforts, the same critical information will now be available for SAR operations involving larger vessels equipped with MF/HF-DSC radios as for the small recreational vessels with VHF-DSC radios.

(Interestingly, the Federal Register entry – Vol. 68 No. 101 for May 27, 2003 – announcing the change is headed with “Wireless Communications Bureau Promotes Increased Maritime Safety by Expanding Collection of Maritime Mobile Service Information.”)

Questions on this or on GMDSS in general can be addressed to Capt. Jack Fuechsel, GMDSS Task Force director, gmdss@erols.com.

Jim Austin

By Ocean Navigator