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The Severity of Shipboard Communication Failures in Maritime Emergencies:

A Risk Management Approach


Karahalios, Hristos. "The severity of shipboard communication failures in maritime
emergencies: A risk management approach." International journal of disaster risk
reduction 28 (2018): 1-9.

Radio communications is a critical aspect of safe ship operations, especially in
emergency conditions. For a ship, its radio communication efficiency is crucial for
enforcing contingency plans in an emergency. Otherwise, rescue operations may be
very challenging especially in oceans. Thus this study proposed a methodology
identifying the probability of a ship in distress to have a failure to certain radio
equipment. The methodology could be a valuable tool for coastal states to improve
their contingency plans. The methodology involves common criteria in determining
the risk factors of identifying a ship with radio communication failures. These factors
are based on frequency analysis of 392 ships with radio equipment malfunctions with
the means of Analysis Of Variances (ANOVA) and Chi-square tests. It was found that
ships of certain characteristics, such as type and size, frequently have radio
communication failures. On the contrary, the classification society and flag state of a
ship were not deterministic factors. Furthermore, as essential parts of the research
methodology, fuzzy sets and Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) were used, to
evaluate the severity of hazards to search and rescue operations, due to radio failures.
Eventually, a case study was carried out, showing the potentials of the proposed
methodology Keywords: Shipboard Communications, Risk Assessment, Search and


Shipboard communications, Risk assessment, Search and rescue

A maritime accident may cause harm to the ship, cargo carried, loss of crew life or
damage to the marine environment [77,27,26,2]. The International Maritime
Organisation (IMO) as a leading worldwide regulatory authority has developed
regulations aiming risk reduction in ship operations. Risk reduction is defined as
strategic and instrumental measures employed for anticipating future disaster risk,
reducing existing exposure, hazard, or vulnerability, and improving resilience [25].
With respect to shipboard emergency planning, has issued two resolutions, where the
emphasis is given to the effective ship-shore communications. The first one is the
guideline for the Development of a Shipboard Oil Pollution Emergency Plan
(SOPEP), published by the IMO under MEPC.54(32) 1992, as amended by
MEPC.86(44) 2000 and MEPC 117(52) 2004 [39]. The SOPEP requirement focuses
on the preparation of a shipboard plan, containing procedures for incidents, such as
fire/explosion, collision, grounding, and excessive list that could lead to oil discharge
at sea from the ship's bunkers or its cargo [45]. An essential part of this plan is that a
ship should report an incident to the authorities timely and efficiently, in order to
establish further ship-shore cooperation. The second resolution is A.852(20), adopted 

on 27 November 1997 and revised with MSC 91/22/Add.2, with the title; “Guidelines
for a Structure of an Integrated System of Contingency Planning for Shipboard
Emergencies”. In this resolution, in paragraph 3.2.5, it is written that a ship involved
in an emergency, or in a marine pollution incident, must communicate with the
appropriate ship interests coastal state, or the port contacts. Additionally, in paragraph, the guideline specifies the communication abilities of a plan in an
emergency condition. The IMO resolutions are binding on the coastal states, which
should be prepared to correspond when a ship requests assistance. A notable relevant
legal obligation for each state is to provide Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR)
services, as agreed at an international level, within the international conventions
[37,36,85]. The main aim of SAR services is to assist people in distress or danger at
sea. They also involve activities, such as assisting ships and vessels in difficult
situations [15,9], accident prevention, search and rescue, medical consultations and
patient transportation [57]. Some studies have focused on the complexity of the
decision making, during SAR operations [75]. One area where improvements are
considered necessary by SAR operators is the communication and information
exchange with vessel's crew [57]. The utilization of radio shipboard communication at
the beginning of the 20th century, as part of maritime rescue plans, was a significant
contributing factor in reducing the losses of the lives of seafarers [31]. Furthermore,
the radio communications improved the medical advice services for seafarers offer
assistance by health professionals to seafarers, depending on the location of a ship and
the availability of the coastal radio stations [29,40]. In an emergency, a ship should
exercise contingency plans which require assistance from ashore where
communications efficiency is a paramount issue. Due to the long distance of a ship
from coast its radio communication equipment will be the most important tool in
order to manage risk and eliminate disasters. To this aspect, the satellite era provided
a safety net of many capabilities for ships, with respect to the positioning finding and
the communications. The advent of the satellite-based improved ship-to-shore
communications at a global level. The intervention of the IMO, offers some options
for communication, regarding the safety information exchange, such as the GMDSS,
the SafetyNet and the FleetNet systems [67]. As regards the GMDSS system,
improved radio communication system, assisted the rescue services not only in the
search, but also in the reduction of the number of serious casualties [50]. The SAR
Convention was designed to provide a global system for responding to emergencies.
The GMDSS was established to provide SAR with the efficient communication
support it needs.
A ship in distress should be able to contact by any available means, the nearby states,
to enhance a rescue mission. However ineffective transmission of a distress signal or
other safety information by a ship to a coastal station may be due to poor maintenance
or operation of radio communication by seafarers. Therefore coastal states enhance
regular safety inspections of ships at the ports or anchorages by government officials,
such as the Port State Control (PSC) officers, aiming to identify any equipment
malfunctions [49]. PSC inspections reveal several deficiencies, in terms of radio
equipment maintenance and crew training standards [18,74,66]. According to Tang
and Sampson [80] ship officers were found to have limitations in operation and
maintenance of radio equipment. A possible cause could be that many GMDSS
manufacturers did not concentrate on the development of a sound ergonomic system
[82]. Due to costs of PSC inspections, ships with certain characteristics, such as the 

type, the age, the flag state and the classification society are not regularly inspected
[18,71,49,83]. In this respect, some private industrial authorities establish
complimentary inspections, evaluate shipboard radio communications [50]. However,
there is some uncertainty as several ships are not inspected frequently.
The aim of this paper is to contribute, with respect to the identification of the ships
which are more likely to have radio equipment failures by introducing a risk analysis
model. The proposed model is based on frequency analysis and combined with the
Fuzzy-AHP method. Within this framework, the proposed method is used to provide a
ranking of decision alternatives and prioritisation weights of those factors. As a
consequence, the paper consists of five main sections. The first section expresses the
motivation behind the research. In the second section, the literature is extended, in
order to identify failures and limitations of radio communication. The third section
explains the proposed methodology, its technical background, and the related
application in literature. The development of a monitoring tool, which will include the
ship characteristics, is identified as a tool to minimise the risk exposure of a coastal
state, due to an occurrence of an accident. The model demonstration is provided in
section four. The final section concludes with a discussion and an original
contribution to the research. 2. Review on radio communications effectiveness
2.1. Geographical coverage and limitations of GMDSS
The aim of GMDSS is that a ship can transmit its geographical position, by a radio or
satellite telecommunication system, along with a Maritime Mobile Service Identifier
(MMSI) Number to the international SAR operators in the event of an emergency
[22]. The broadcast of MSI to ships, navigational warnings, weather forecast, storm
warning and Search and Rescue (SAR) information, are useful in prevention of
accidents [52]. The efficiency of the GMDSS system is to ensure that all radio
equipment, include the Digital Selective Calling (DSC) function which is mandatory
[58]. The DSC is designed to initiate the transmission of a distress call message to
land stations via MF, HF, VHF and satellite medium communication and to carry the
vessel's information, position and the type of distress [93].
GMDSS system has significant operating costs when compared to other initiations,
such as SAR, VTS and pilotage [65,61,48]. Therefore the design of GMDSS is based
on four separate geographical zones, as shown in Table 1. This worldwide
communication plan aims to minimise impacts of hazards at sea, and includes ways to
manage the associated risks which are basic elements of Disaster Risk Reduction as
discussed by Forino, et al., [25]. The concept of GMDSS is that a ship is equipped
with radio equipment sufficient for the geographical areas certified to trade. However,
failure of some equipment will reduce the capability of a ship to communicate with
SAR operators by using the most efficient way has not been examined in detail at
previous research studies.


2.2. Radio equipment reliability
An early application of radio communication systems in GMDSS Area A1 was the
use of Very High Frequency (VHF) radio, for short distances [35]. A main practical
application of VHF is the collisionavoidance manoeuvring among ships transmission
of messages by the coastal states [76]. Recent VHF application is the Automatic
Identification System (AIS) transponder transmits ships position, speed and course,
among other static information (such as vessel's name, dimensions and voyage
details) periodically to predefined VHF channels [17,21,38,73]. In GMDSS Area A2
the use of High Frequency (HF) radio waves for long-range voice and telex

communications, are adopted. The GMDSS system also includes Narrow-band direct-
printing telegraph equipment, for receiving meteorological or navigational

information (NAVTEX) in Medium Frequency (MF) band [12,59]. However, radio
wave technologies are subject to failures due to exposure if their antennas in the
marine environment, ship motions, due to the fluctuation of the sea waves or
ionospheric plasma parameters [14]. Despite the technological advance in antenna
designs, the marine environment is affecting the angle between the transmit antenna
and the receiving antenna [61,32,94]. One main limitation of VHF radio frequencies
is that it has a range of less than 20 nautical miles [61].
For ships involved in ocean passages, GMDSS Area A3, the International Mobile
Satellite Organisation (INMARSAT) provides Enhanced Group Calling and
SafetyNet services, by broadcasting MSI, communications between ship-shore and
ship-ship, which includes narrowband, broadband and distress services, in fixed
geographical or pre-determined coastal areas [13,55]. INMARSAT is designed as a
system of geostationary orbit satellites [8]. On the other hand, ships need to be
equipped with a Mobile Earth Station, type-approved to benefit from the above
services in GMDSS Area A3 [10,17]. However, due to the orbit of its satellites, there
is no service above and below 75–80° North and South latitude respectively,
including sensitive regions, such as the Arctic region [10].
As an alternative to satellite failures ships are equipped with Emergency Position
Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) operating in 121.5 MHz and 406 MHz [8]. In case
a ship is foundered, then EPIRB will transmit a signal of urgency to the coastal station
through INMARSAT information and COSPAS SARSAT services in more than 200
countries and territories. EPIRBs were shown to work in practice, but their
introduction has had limited influence on survival statistics [31]. Furthermore, it has
been noted that in the case of a false EPIRB distress signal the SAR centre sends a
rescue team to the location, which incurs substantial costs to coastal authorities [31,8].


6. Conclusion & discussion
The results of the case study showed that there is a relation between some certain
characteristics of ships and radio communication failures. In terms of classification
societies and flag, there was not any association found, as regards radio
communication failures for ships detained. Regarding the ship size, the database
revealed significance only for HF failures. With regards to the ship type, general
cargo type ships were the majority of the ships detained for radio communication
failures. This paper suggests that the priorities of a SAR centre showed that the longer
distance a ship sails from a coastal state, the more remote the weighting of hazard,
with respect to pollution and navigation threats, is. On the other hand, the safety of
life and the protection of the marine environment are always ranked first and second,
respectively, in all the geographical areas.
The proposed methodology is a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods,
producing a hybrid model. The application of fuzzy AHP with the assistance of
experts, produced a decision-making methodology applicable to the coastal
authorities. SAR operators can use this methodology to increase their efficiency, by
evaluating the ship, which is more likely to have a radio communication failure. It
could also assist the ship operators and regulators to understand the compliance
requirements with SOLAS.
The examination of a case study with data from the IMO, showed that GMDSS
operation was at fault for 98 cases and 77 MF/HF failures. It appears that there are
risk issues due to undetected failures of a noninspected ship, operating in A3 GMDSS
areas. Those ships, if found in an emergency situation, may have limitations in
conducting SAR operators, causing therefore, undue delays in receiving assistance.
The proposed tool was tested on ships detained by Paris MOU PSC authorities. This
choice was made due to the availability of data. However, it is suggested that other
MOU databases should be examined, so as for the results to be compared. Paris MOU
is considered as a strict PSC regime, providing rigorous inspections. Thus, it may be
considered that ship operators with substandard ships, may prefer to trade in other
geographical areas. Such a preference could increase risk exposure to some states.
Accordingly, it is expected that radio communication failures may be more frequent
or more severe in other geographical regions.