Virtually every country on the globe with navigable waterways has a maritime search and rescue service of some sort. Larger nations with highly capable navies and marine services offer considerable protection and support to the vessels traveling in and near their waters. An important part of preparing yourself for cruising is to enable your vessel to communicate automatically to these services, particularly in emergency situations.
First, a few acronyms and definitions:
Digital Selective Calling (DSC) – A designation under the GMDSS “primarily intended to initiate ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship radiotelephone and MF/HF radiotelex calls. DSC calls can also be made to individual stations, groups of stations, or "all stations" in one's radio range.”
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – The United States federal agency responsible for registering and maintaining radio communication licenses.
FCC Registration Number (FRN) – A unique number used by the FCC to identify license holders. This abbreviation is used synonmously as the username on the FCC web site. The idea is that a single FRN can be used to register multiple radio operators and devices. If you already have a HAM and/or operator license, you probably were prompted to register with the FCC. At that time, you would have been assigned an FRN. If not, the first step is to go to register on the FCC web site and obtain an FRN.
Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS) -- “An internationally agreed-upon set of safety procedures, types of equipment, and communication protocols used to increase safety and make it easier to rescue distressed ships, boats and aircraft.” While small craft are not required to maintain radio equipment capable of participating in the GMDSS, it is a very good idea to do so anyway. Most SSB radios include DSC capacity which enables them to participate in the GMDSS.
Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) – “A series of nine digits which are sent in digital form over a radio frequency channel in order to uniquely identify ship stations, ship earth stations, coast stations, coast earth stations, and group calls.” For US flagged vessels, you can register with a third-party such as BoatUS for an MMSI valid for coastal waters in the United States. However, you must register with the FCC when taking your vessel outside U.S. waters.
SA – When you register a wireless device with the FCC, you must select a radio service type. An SSB radio on a recreational vessel is considered a Maritime Mobile device of the category “SA – Ship Recreational or Voluntarily Equipped”. According to the FCC “Smaller ships used for recreation (e.g., sailing, diving, sport fishing, fishing, water skiing) are not required to have radio stations installed but they may be so equipped by choice. These ships are known as "voluntary ships" because they are not required by treaty or statute to carry a radio but voluntarily fit some of the same equipment used by compulsory ships.”
Universal Licensing System (ULS) – An online tool maintained by the FCC for the purpose of using “any PC with Internet access to research, manage, renew, and pay any applicable fees for your wireless licenses through a password-protected account.” The FCC site is, to be blunt, very poorly organized. Use this link to go directly to the ULS home page. Typical of most cruisers, Don Quixote's ULS account includes: the captain's radio operator license, our HAM and SSB call signs, and our international MMSI.
The two principle methods used by cruisers to communicate distress automatically are an EPIRB and the emergency signal issued by an SSB radio. An Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) is a dedicated device which broadcasts a maritime distress signal. As of February 1, 2009, all EPIRBs carried by U.S. flagged vessels must transmit at 406 MHz, as satellites no longer receive transmissions at 121.5 MHz. BoatUS provides an excellent guide to how an EPIRB functions. A single side band (SSB) radio can transmit a digital signal call. Both of categories of device communicate with the Cospas-Sarsat satellite monitoring system. The system is monitored both domestically and internationally by maritime rescue services.
To take full advantage of publicly available search and rescue services, you must register your emergency beacon and obtain an MMSI. EPIRB and SSBs broadcast a the MMSI to the satellite monitoring system. Since in an emergency, you might not be able to follow up these signals with a call to explain who you are, how many passengers are on your vessel, and what you look like on the water, you must register your devices in advance with this information. In many countries, you can register your device domestically for free. If you plan to spend a long period of time in a single country, it is a good idea to do the research to identify and register with these agencies. For example, in the U.S. you can register your beacon with BoatUS. In New Zealand, you can't register a U.S. device, but you can contact them and they will “keep an eye open” for your beacon. The agency is the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ). I envision this as “a guy” with a stack of email messages next to a radio receiver. It sounds ricky ticky, but the RCCNZ is reknowned for saving people and boats; So however they do it, the system works.
The process of registering your emergency devices is fraught with the usual challenges and frustrations associated with government agencies. Everything that follows from this point applies to U.S. flagged vessels only. Readers with vessels flagged in other countries must do the research for their domestic requirements.
Steps to Register Your Emergency Beacon1. Gather the following:
- FRN username and password – If you do not already have one, go to the ULS home page and register.
- Credit card
- EPIRB identification number – This number can be found on the side of an EPRIB device.
- A computer with a connection to the Internet and either Internet Explorer or Firefox web browser
2. Browse to the ULS home page and log in with your FRN and password.
3. Apply for a new license. As of the time of this writing, the link to apply for a new license is found in the left column.
4. Complete the form as prompted. Note that your vessel is a category SA radio service, you do not already have an MMSI (even if you've registered for a free one with a local service such as BoatUS or RCCNZ). The objective is to associate a new MMSI with your existing EPIRB and ensure that it is registered in the International Search and Rescue database.
5. Pay for the application. As of November 2010, the fee for registration is $160USD.
6. Monitor the ULS until your application is approved. Then print the resulting license. This process can take 10 days to 3 weeks. In our case, it took two weeks.
"Global Maritime Distress Safety System: DSC." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 17 Nov. 2010.
"Global Maritime Distress Safety System." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 17 Nov. 2010.
"Maritime Mobile Service Identity." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 17 Nov. 2010.
"FCC: Wireless Services: Ship Radio Stations: About." FCC: Wireless Telecommunications Bureau. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. .
"FCC Universal Licensing System (ULS): About ULS: Getting Started." FCC: Wireless Telecommunications Bureau. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. .