Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS)
The GMDSS is an internationally recognized distress and radio communication safety system for ships replacing the previous ship to ship safety system, which relied on a manual Morse code system on 500 kHz and voice radiotelephony on Channel 16 and 2182 kHz. The GMDSS is an automated ship to shore system using satellites and digital selective calling technology. The GMDSS is mandated for ships internationally by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS), 1974, as amended in 1988, and carries the force of an international treaty. The procedures governing use are contained in the International Telecommunication Union recommendations and in the International Radio Regulations, and also carry the force of an International Treaty.
Where are the GMDSS regulations contained?
The GMDSS regulations are contained in 47 C.F.R. Part 80. Most of the GMDSS regulations are in Subpart W of Part 80
, but Subpart W also cross-references certain other FCC rules, as follows (the cross-referencing Subpart W is listed parenthetically after the cross-referenced rule): 13.2 (80.1073(a)), 13.21 (80.1073(a)), 80.334 (80.1114), 80.335 (80.1114), 80.836 (80.1065(b)(5)(iii)), 80.933 (80.1065(b)(5)(iii)).
What ships are affected by the GMDSS rules?
The international GMDSS regulations apply to "compulsory" ships including:
- cargo ships of 300 gross tons and over when traveling on international voyages or in the open sea
- all passenger ships carrying more than twelve passengers when traveling on international voyages or in the open sea
These are the same ships currently covered by the SOLAS Convention and Title III, Part II of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended.
- Fishing vessels that are otherwise subject to the SOLAS GMDSS requirements have received a limited, temporary waiver of the requirement to carry VHF-DSC (in Sea Area A1) and MF-DSC (in Sea Area A2) equipment. See Waiver of Certain Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) Rules Applicable to Fishing Vessels and Small Passenger Vessels, Order, 14 FCC Rcd 528, FCC 98-296 (1998) (pdf). The waiver is conditioned on the requirement that these fishing vessels continue to carry a 406 MHz EPIRB, a NAVTEX receiver, and survival craft equipment including at least three portable VHF radiotelephones and two 9 GHz radar transponders (SARTs). In addition, the waiver is available only for vessels that remain within the specified communications ranges, and that vessels that, for example, travel in Sea Area A3, outside such range and generally more than one hundred nautical miles from shore, are not permitted to avail themselves of the waiver. Such vessels, therefore, must be fitted with the full complement of required GMDSS equipment in the absence of an individual exemption.
- Vessels on the Great Lakes - The GMDSS regulations do not apply to vessels operating exclusively on the Great Lakes.
Why were the changes necessary?
The changes were mandated by international treaty obligations. In 1988, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an organization of the United Nations, amended the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention to implement the GMDSS worldwide. The United States has been a strong advocate of the GMDSS internationally. On January 16, 1992, the FCC adopted the GMDSS regulations for U.S. compulsory vessels. Report and Order, PR Docket No. 90-480, FCC 92-19, 7 FCC Rcd 951 (1992).
What are the requirements regarding communications personnel aboard GMDSS ships?
The FCC requires two licensed radio operators to be aboard all GMDSS certified ships, one of whom must be available to act as a dedicated radio operator during a distress situation. The radio operators must be holders of a GMDSS Radio Operator's License. The GMDSS radio operator is an individual licensed to handle radio communications aboard ships in compliance with the GMDSS regulations, including basic equipment and antenna adjustments. The GMDSS radio operator need not be a radio officer.
Another IMO Convention requires all masters and mates to hold the GMDSS Radio Operator's License and attend a two week training course and demonstrate competency with operation of the GMDSS equipment. These requirements would also carry to any person employed specifically to act as a dedicated radio operator if the ship elected to carry such a position.
What about radio equipment maintenance aboard GMDSS ships?
Identical to the international GMDSS regulations, the FCC regulations provide three methods to ensure that radio equipment is functionally capable of providing communications. The three methods approved for GMDSS ships are (two of the three methods are required for most ocean voyages):
- shore based maintenance
- at sea maintenance
- duplication of equipment
Does duplication of equipment mean that GMDSS ships must carry two sets of everything?
No. Duplication of equipment is not equivalent to complete redundancy. Only that equipment critical to radio communications during an emergency is required. The GMDSS regulations specify the particular radio equipment that is required under the duplication of equipment option. See the FCC's GMDSS regulations, 47 CFR Section 80.1105
, for exact details.
Who can make repairs or adjustments to GMDSS radio equipment?
The GMDSS regulations require that GMDSS ships that choose at sea maintenance carry a licensed GMDSS radio maintainer. In addition to those individuals holding a GMDSS Radio Maintainer's License, the First or Second Class Radiotelegraph Operator's Certificate (T-1 or T-2) and the General Radiotelephone Operator License (G) are acceptable. Land maintenance must be performed by qualified individuals or companies.
Do the GMDSS radio operator, the GMDSS radio maintainer, and the current radio officer need to be separate individuals?
The GMDSS ship must have two licensed GMDSS radio operators. One of the GMDSS licensed radio operators can be the current radio officer or any other qualified member of the crew holding the appropriate FCC license. If the GMDSS ship chooses at sea maintenance, then it must have a person holding a T, T-1, T-2, G, or GMDSS Radio Maintainer's License, who could be one of the GMDSS radio operators, the radio officers, or any other qualified member of the crew.
What equipment is necessary under the GMDSS rules?
The exact suite of equipment depends upon the intended routes of your ship. A careful review of the new regulations, 47 CFR Section 80.1105
, is needed to determine the requirements applicable to each ship. A ship can sail in any of four sea areas, as defined below:
Sea area A1. An area within the radiotelephone coverage of at least one VHF coast station in which continuous DSC alerting is available as defined by the International Maritime Organization.
Sea Area A2. An area, excluding sea area A1, within the radiotelephone coverage of at least one MF coast station in which continuous DSC alerting is available as defined by the International Maritime Organization.
Sea Area A3. An area, excluding sea areas A1 and A2, within the coverage of an INMARSAT geostationary satellite in which continuous alerting is available.
Sea Area A4. An area outside sea areas A1, A2, and A3.
Is there any equipment that is common to all GMDSS ships?
Generally, all GMDSS ships must carry a 406 MHz EPIRB, a VHF radio capable of transmitting and receiving DSC and radiotelephony, a NAVTEX receiver, a SART, and two-way VHF portable radios. See the FCC's GMDSS regulations, 47 CFR Sections 80.1085 through 80.1093
for exact details.
How can I check if my radio equipment is authorized for GMDSS use?
Any equipment that is certified to meet the GMDSS requirements will have a FCC ID# and appear on the electronic "FCC Radio Equipment List" with a notation that it is authorized for GMDSS use. Further, GMDSS equipment (excluding 406 MHz EPIRBS), must have a label stating:
"This device complies with the GMDSS provisions of Part 80 of the FCC Rules
Only the manufacturer or an authorized representative may add these labels. In all cases, you can verify the status of equipment by asking the manufacturer or the FCC. FCC information is available at the Office of Engineering and Technology
How do I get copies of the FCC's GMDSS regulations, the IMO Master Plan, and all of the reference documents?
Copies of any FCC document can be purchased through the FCC's copy contractor, Best Copy and Printing, 445 12th Street, S.W., Room CY-B402, Washington, D.C. 20554, www.bcpiweb.com; phone: (202) 488-5300 fax: (202) 488-5563. In addition, the Commission’s GMDSS regulations in Part 80 of the FCC Rules
can be found on the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (e-cfr) web site maintained by the Government Printing Office.
ITU Radio Regulations, CCIR and CCITT publications --
Place des Nations
CH-1211 Geneva 20
Master Plan of Shore-Based Facilities for the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System --
4 Albert Embankment
IEC and ISO publications --
11 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 20593 10036
Where can I obtain further information about the GMDSS?
Questions concerning vessel or radio operator licensing -- FCC Consumer Center at 888-225-5322, (888) CALL FCC, or contact the US Coast Guard at:
U.S. Coast Guard - Stop 7710
2703 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE
P: Washington, D.C. 20593-7710