What is it like to be responsible for ‘life or death’ communications across 50 million sq km of ocean?

24 March 2016

James Lamb, New Zealand Maritime Operations Centre

  • maritime

  • safety

In 2015, 67% of responding vessels for long range incidents in the South Pacific reported receiving the distress alerts on their Inmarsat C terminals. New Zealand Maritime Operations Centre’s Senior Radio Operator, James Lamb, describes the challenges of being the first point of call for ships in distress for 12.5% of the earth’s total water surface.


For its size, New Zealand has one of the largest areas of responsibility in the world, both in regards to Search & Rescue (SAR) and the provision of Maritime Safety Information (MSI).

New Zealand’s combined Search & Rescue Region (SRR) and responsible Navarea (NAVAREA XIV) includes all of the coastal waters around the country, extending from the equator to Antarctica, and from half way across the Tasman Sea to halfway towards South America. That equates to some 50 million square kilometres of ocean, making up 12.5% of the earth’s total water surface.

Such a vast expanse of ocean presents our New Zealand Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) with significant challenges in meeting the Global Maritime Distress Safety Services (GMDSS) obligations for distress monitoring and the dissemination of SAR and MSI traffic.

To fulfil those obligations the centre operates an extensive VHF, MF and HF radio network for voice and digital selective calling (DSC) and complements this with Inmarsat’s SafetyNET system for the satellite component.

SafetyNET offers New Zealand a cost-effective option for the transmission of textual messages. This system has then been paired with Inmarsat C (the GMDSS-approved satellite safety service) to allow the centre to continue text communications with vessels when required. Additionally it allows us to monitor our own SafetyNET transmissions.

Enhanced Group Calling (EGC) messages transmitted through SafetyNET provides the centre with our most effective method of long range distress alerting to suitably equipped GMDSS vessels. In 2015, 67% of the responding vessels for long range incidents reported receiving the MOC distress alerts on their Inmarsat C terminals, and our most recent example of this occurred on the 3 January 2016.

Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) was assisting with a SAR operation searching for three men in a 15 foot wooden boat missing in Kiribati (Marshall Islands), approximately 2,800 nautical miles northeast of New Zealand. In addition to coordinating aerial searches, RCCNZ requested the MOC broadcast alerts to shipping in the area via SafetyNET.

Having received our SafetyNET broadcasts, the captain of a bulk carrier transiting through the area en-route Panama posted additional look-outs and located the three men in their boat. He called RCCNZ via his Inmarsat satellite phone to advise them of the rescue.  RCCNZ then arranged for their transfer to a local vessel and their safe return home.

About the author

Aldo KaneJames Lamb is a Senior Radio Operator working for Kordia at the New Zealand Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) in Wellington. Kordia is a New Zealand state owned enterprise that holds contacts for GMDSS services with both the New Zealand and Australian Governments.  James has 29 years of communications experience, with the last 22 years spent as a marine radio operator and his first 7 years as a communications operator in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. He is a certified GMDSS instructor and also provided training and systems testing for Kordia’s Canberra office when the Australian operations were established in 2004.  The MOC is comprised of a single operations centre located in Wellington that operates a network of 30 VHF stations located around the New Zealand coastline and the Chatham Islands, plus MF & HF voice and DSC services from two sites located in the central North Island.

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