Ship Radio Stations

The GMDSS is an internationally recognized distress and radio communication safety system that has been in place for several decades. The GMDSS is an automated ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship system using satellites and/or terrestrial radio systems with digital selective calling technology. These systems provide safety-of-life information and communication systems that inform vessels of navigation hazards and weather conditions, and enable distress calls with pertinent location and identification information with the push of a button. 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.

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.
  • Vessels on the Great Lakes - The GMDSS regulations do not apply to vessels operating exclusively on the Great Lakes.
  • For additional information regarding vessel requirements on the Great Lakes.

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. Land maintenance must be performed by individuals holding a GMDSS Radio Maintainer's License, Radiotelegraph Operator License or First or Second Class Radiotelegraph Operator's Certificate (T, T-1 or T-2) or General Radiotelephone Operator License (G).

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 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 regulations, 47 CFR Subpart W, 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. (Please note, the USCG has decided not to build out MF stations covering the US coasts, so vessels operating beyond Sea area A1 are essentially operating in Sea area A3.)
  • Sea Area A3. An area, excluding sea areas A1 and A2, within the coverage of an INMARSAT geostationary satellite or, pursuant to a Wireless Telecommunications Bureau waiver, DA-19-1334, WT Docket No. 19-280 (WTB rel. Dec. 27, 2019), an Iridium NGSO satellite in which continuous alerting is available..
  • Sea Area A4. An area outside sea areas A1, A2, and A3 (generally polar regions).

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, backup power systems to enable emergency communications if primary power fails 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 home page.

How do I get copies of the FCC's GMDSS regulations, the IMO Master Plan, and all of the reference documents?

ITU Radio Regulations, CCIR and CCITT publications --
Place des Nations
CH-1211 Geneva 20
P: 011-41-22-730-511
Master Plan of Shore-Based Facilities for the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System --
4 Albert Embankment
United Kingdom
P: 011-44-71-735-7611
IEC and ISO publications --
11 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 20593 10036
P: 212-642-4900

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

Equipment Authorization

What must I do to get an FCC equipment authorization for GMDSS equipment?

All GMDSS equipment must be certified by the FCC, except equipment used in the INMARSAT system and the Iridium system, which is subject to verification and must be approved by the manufacturer. All GMDSS equipment must conform to both the general requirements in Section 80.1101(a) and the specific performance requirements in Section 80.1101(b) of the FCC rules. For certification, the applicant must submit the material listed in Section 2.1033 of the FCC rules, and attest that the equipment complies with the performance standards listed in Section 80.1101. Sample units of GMDSS equipment need not be submitted unless specifically requested by the FCC laboratory. .

What and how do I file for FCC equipment authorization?

The FCC is presently accepting GMDSS equipment authorization applications. Applications for type acceptance and notification are to be filed on FCC Form 731. You may obtain a copy by calling (800) 418-FORM. The completed FCC Form 731 must be accompanied by FCC Form 159 and the required fee.

What are the labeling requirements for GMDSS equipment?

Before it can be used to meet the GMDSS equipment carriage requirements, equipment must be FCC authorized for GMDSS use and, except for existing 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 the manufacturer's authorized representative, can add these labels. (Existing 406 MHz EPIRBs may have the label added -- at the option of the manufacturer.) It is to the manufacturer's benefit to obtain a grant of authorization and affix labels prior to marketing the equipment in order to avoid having to send personnel to affix the required label. The equipment must not be marketed with the label until FCC authorization has been obtained.
For further information on certifying GMDSS equipment, contact the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology Laboratory at (301) 362-3000.


Monday, November 20, 2023