ASHCOM GMDSS Systems
GMDSS Basic Concepts
A System Overview
The GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) is specifically designed to automate
a ship's radio distress alerting function, and, as a consequence, removes the requirement for manual
(ie: human) watchkeeping on distress channels.
The GMDSS regulations (chapter IV of the International SOLAS Convention), require that every GMDSS
equipped ship shall be capable of:
Transmitting ship-to-shore Distress Alerts by at least two separate and independent means,
each using a different radio communication service;
Receiving shore-to-ship Distress Alerts;
Transmitting and receiving ship-to-ship Distress Alerts;
Transmitting and receiving search and rescue co-ordinating communications;
Transmitting and receiving on-scene communications;
Transmitting and receiving locating signals;
Receiving maritime safety information;
Transmitting and receiving general radio communications relating to the management and operation of the vessel;
Transmitting and receiving bridge-to-bridge communications.
The GMDSS applies to vessels subject to the SOLAS Convention - that is:
Commercial vessels of 300 Gross Registered Tons (GRT) and above, engaged on international voyages.
The GMDSS became mandatory for such vessels as at 1st February 1999. Commercial vessels under 300 GRT,
or those above 300 GRT engaged on domestic voyages only are subject to the requirements of their Flag State.
Some Flag States have incorporated GMDSS requirements into their domestic marine radio legislation - however
many have not.
Equipment vs Operational requirements:
The major difference between the GMDSS and its predecessor systems is that the radio communications
equipment to be fitted to a GMDSS ship is determined by the ship's area of operation, rather than by its
size. Because the various radio systems used in the GMDSS have different limitations with regards to range
and services provided, the new system divides the world's oceans into 4 areas:
Area A1 lies within range of shore-based VHF coast stations (20 to 30 nautical miles);
Area A2 lies within range of shore based MF coast stations (excluding A1 areas)(approximately
100 - 150 nautical miles);
Area A3 lies within the coverage area of Inmarsat communications satellites (excluding A1
and A2 areas - approximately latitude 70 degrees north to latitude 70 degrees south);
Area A4 comprises the remaining sea areas outside areas A1, A2 and A3 (the Polar Regions).
GMDSS communication systems:
The GMDSS utilises both satellite and terrestrial (ie: conventional) radio systems:
Sea Area A1 requires short range radio services - VHF is used to provide voice and automated
distress alerting via Digital Selective Calling (DSC).
Sea Area A2 requires medium range services - Medium Frequencies (MF - 2 MHz) are used for voice and DSC.
Sea Areas A3 and A4 require long range alerting - High Frequencies (HF - 3 to 30 MHz) are used for voice,
DSC and Narrow Band Direct Printing (NBDP - aka radio telex).
Equipment requirements vary according to the area the ship is trading to or through. Accordingly, it is
quite possible that a small 300 ton cargo vessel may carry the same amount of communications equipment as
a 300,000 ton oil tanker, if they are both operating in the same area....this is a marked change from the
pre-GMDSS systems. This is illustrated in the diagram below:
As discussed above, equipment fit requirements vary according to the Sea Area(s) a vessel operates in or through.
It should be noted that the requirements are cumulative in nature - ie: an A4 vessel is also equipped, by definition,
with equipment for A1, A2 and A3 Sea Areas. In areas where A1 Services are provided, coastal vessels are only required
to fit VHF equipment, provided of course that they remain within the declared Sea Area - normally within 20 to 30
nautical miles of the coast. Vessels that trade further from land are required to carry MF equipment, in addition to VHF.
However, it should be noted that the above examples assume a linear transition from A1 to A4 sea areas - in many areas
of the world, (such as Australia) A3 areas extend right up to the coast line. GMDSS vessels operating in or through
those areas are required to fit A3 equipment. Ocean going vessels fit VHF, MF, HF and Inmarsat equipment. The process
is depicted below:
Each of the countries contracting to the SOLAS Convention (basically, all of the world's major shipping nations) are required
to enforce the equipping of vessels sailing under their flag with GMDSS and also provide suitable GMDSS shore-based infrastructure.
The GMDSS enables a ship in distress to send an alert using various radio systems. These systems are designed such that the
alert has a very high probability of being received by either shore rescue authorities and/or other vessels in the area.
Equipment performing GMDSS functions must be simple to operate and (wherever appropriate) be designed for unattended operation.
Distress Alerts must be able to be initiated from the position from which the ship is normally navigated (i.e. the bridge).
EPIRBs are required to be installed close to, or capable of remote activation from the position from which the ship is normally