Incident Highlights Dangers of Accidental DSC Alerts

Photo/New England Boating

The following article was issued by the U.S. Coast Guard regarding a recent incident involving the accidental triggering of a VHF radio’s Digital Selective Calling (DSC) alert button:

Few events are as frightening and as demanding as an emergency afloat. One of an owner/operator’s most immediate priorities is to broadcast a distress call seeking Coast Guard assistance. Under the stress of the moment, a voice call can be garbled, incomplete or wrong. When minutes count and lives are in danger, lack of information or poor data can delay the Coast Guard’s ability to rapidly reach a mariner in distress.

Fortunately, there is a tool available that can instantly broadcast the right information. This tool is Digital Selective Calling (DSC), similar to an electronic maritime pager, which is triggered by a simple button on marine radios accepted since June 1999. When the button is depressed for 3 seconds, and if the system has been properly programmed, an alert is automatically broadcast. But, just like any tool, DSC has to be used and cared for properly to be effective.

A recent incident here in New York illustrates what can go wrong:

At 11:30 a.m. on September 4, 2011, the Coast Guard Sector New York Command Center received a DSC alert via a communications tower at a remote location. A DSC alert is transmitted as a digital data stream.

The only information contained in the alert was that which comprises a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI). Maritime Mobile Service Identities are 9-digit numbers that specifically identify vessels. (If a GPS is hooked into the DSC-equipped radio, precise location data will also be transmitted.)

The command center developed a search area based on a probable location and an order to launch aviation units. Within the search area, a search pattern was also established for the Coast Guard helicopter that would be used in an initial search. Simultaneously, the command center researched the MMSI data to identify the registered owner, who was contacted. A short time later, the search was stood down.

Why? What did the Coast Guard learn that caused it to cease efforts before ever launching a search and rescue helicopter?

When the registered owner was contacted, he stated that he had sold the boat 4 years prior. After further research, the Coast Guard was able to contact the second owner. He had sold the boat a week before. Finally, the current owner was found. When questioned, the current owner admitted that in the course of changing the battery, cleaning and checking equipment, he had inadvertently triggered the DSC distress alert. He also admitted that he had little idea of what DSC was or how it worked.

The potential harm is fairly obvious. When search and rescue aircraft are launched, it costs several thousand dollars per hour to operate these craft. On a bogus search, that is taxpayer money burned up for no good reason.

When Coast Guard aircraft and boats are fruitlessly engaged in a search triggered by a false alarm, they are not immediately available for a real emergency. People in imminent danger of death or injury and needing assistance right away may have to wait longer than they would if an unnecessary search was not underway.
An owner/operator who triggers an unnecessary search, even by accident, is liable to civil and criminal penalties that may include jail time, civil and criminal fines that can total thousands of dollars, and reimbursement of search costs, more thousands of dollars. A recent search in the Sandy Hook, New Jersey, area cost the Coast Guard nearly $90,000.

However, the Coast Guard’s preference is not to punish but to educate. Responsible owners need to know what to do and how to do it.

Step one comes when you purchase a boat. Buy a marine radio, equipped with DSC. Then you need to register your MMSI data. The web links below will guide you through that process. It doesn’t take long, and it could be the difference between being found right away in case of an emergency at sea and not being found until it is too late.

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