Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 7 Mar 2000

Vol. 515 No. 6

Written Answers. - Maritime Safety Equipment.

Brendan Howlin


85 Mr. Howlin asked the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources if his attention has been drawn to the fact that the United States coastguard has refused to install the global maritime distress and safety systems equipment which is required on Irish fishing vessels owing to serious flaws resulting in an inordinate level of false alarms; if his attention has been further drawn to the fact that similar problems have also been documented in relation to the Falmouth coastguard; his views on whether it is prudent that fishermen be required to install this expensive electronic equipment in their vessels in view of these experiences; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6957/00]

Prior to the development of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System maritime radio communications depended on shipborne radiotelegraph and radiotelephone systems. The GMDSS was first developed by the International Maritime Organisation in the late 1960s. The IMO Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea, to which Ireland is a signatory, was amended to include the GMDSS and that amendment was implemented on a phased basis for merchant ships from 1 February 1992. Furthermore, two EU directives Council Directive 97/70/EC setting up a harmonised safety regime for fishing vessels of 24 metres in length or over and Council Directive 98/18/EC on safety rules and standards for passenger ships, in respect of newly built national passenger ships of 24 metres and above on domestic voyages, extended the provisions of chapter IV of the SOLAS Convention (GMDSS) to both classes of vessel.

In 1996 the report of the fishing vessel safety review group recommended that radio rules be introduced for all fishing vessels. These recommendations provided for the installation of GMDSS radio installations on board all fishing vessels, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the length of the vessel, and the operating area of each fishing vessel.

All of the fishing industry representative groups were represented on the review group and the recommendations of the group were implemented in Irish law by the Fishing Vessel (Radio Installations) Regulations, 1998 (S.I. No. 544 of 1998).

The GMDSS uses both terrestrial and satellite radio communication systems. It provides for electronic distress, urgency and safety alerting and radio watchkeeping. When a vessel needs to send a distress alert it can immediately transmit the identity of the vessel, the position of the vessel and the fact that the vessel is in distress, all at the push of a button.

This transmission can be made on very high frequency with a range of approximately 30 nautical miles, on medium frequency with a range of approximately 150 miles or on high frequency with a range of thousands of miles depending on the frequency band.

The GMDSS also requires ships to carry emergency position indicating radio beacons. These devices can be activated either manually or automatically. When activated the devices transmit the identity of the EPIRB/vessel and the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system, through which the EPIRB operates, computes the position of the EPIRB. All of the information is then quickly and automatically routed to a marine rescue co-ordination centre. Ireland, in complying with the IMO SOLAS Convention, has installed GMDSS radio communications equipment at its coastguard radio stations for the reception of distress, urgency, safety and routine communications from ships of all flags within its waters.

It is recognised that there have been problems with the GMDSS, in particular the problem of the transmission of false distress alerts. However, it must be said that the serious efforts which have been made, and which continue to be made, are helping to reduce the number of such incidents.

Steps have been taken to modify and improve equipment design to make it more user friendly. Ireland has been to the forefront in assisting the European Telecommunications Standards Institute with the development and redrafting of technical specifications. Furthermore, the Conference of European Postal and Telecommunications Administrations through its working groups and project teams of which Ireland is a member, has developed harmonised radio operator certification standards.
Within European Administrations, it has been recognised that the best way to improve the GMDSS and maximise its efficiency is to ensure a high standard of training and certification of radio operator personnel. To this end there is an agreed system of harmonised examination syllabii in use within Europe.
The examinations for GMDSS radio operators are both theoretical and practical. Training courses of an extremely high standard are being provided at Cork and Limerick Institutes of Technology and the BIM training centres and mobile units. These courses culminate in examinations which are set by the marine radio survey office of this Department, on behalf of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation. The examinations are designed to ensure that the highest quality of GMDSS radio operator is available for both the merchant shipping industry as well as the fishing and pleasure industries.
It is no coincidence that the incidents of false alerts emanating from Irish ships are rare. It is also no coincidence that such incidents emanating from European ships – particularly from those European countries which use the harmonised examination procedures – are also rare.
From the information available to me, the position in relation to the United States is that the strategy of the US coastguard is to declare an operational GMDSS sea area for the continental US on 1 March 2000. It is understood that the federal communications commission has granted temporary, conditional waivers of certain rules implementing provisions of the SOLAS Convention relating to GMDSS for small passenger vessels and fishing vessels. These waivers have been granted in recognition that the USCG has not yet been able to complete the planned upgrade of its shore networks required for the GMDSS and it would be unreasonable to require those vessels to install the equipment for high seas operation. It should be noted that these waivers do not apply to EPIRBs, NAVTEX, VHF portable radios and search and rescue radar transponders.
The same reasons do not exist in Ireland or in continental Europe where Administrations have already provided for GMDSS sea areas, as appropriate. It must be recognised that there is no other global maritime radio communications system now available. I am committed to ensuring the highest safety standards on all Irish vessels and the GMDSS provides the most modern radiocommunications system to assist in the safety of all sea going personnel including those employed on fishing vessels.