July 24, 2009

Of ECDIS and that

It is quite likely that when the sextant was invented a few hundred years ago, a purist Captain on the bridge of a galleon somewhere wrinkled his nose and declared that the astrolabe was better. He may have even commented, Cassandra like, that there would be now a torrent of ‘sextant aided collisions’ at sea. In the last thirty years or so, every technological advancement in navigation I have seen at sea has resulted in similar doomsday prophecies. The imminence at sea of the Electronic Chart Display and Information System, ECDIS, is the latest now causing apprehension amongst some of us.

First off, the ECDIS is not all that imminent. Anybody who reads the IMO schedule for phasing in of the system sees this quite clearly. Timelines for installation will undoubtedly vary, but the window is large and the ECDIS is hardly likely to be ubiquitous on ships for quite some time. Which gives us in the industry a unique opportunity to set things up properly this time.

Technological advancements have the capacity to improve navigational safety enormously. Those of us who remember the days of when all we had was a single and often unreliable non ARPA Radar will agree that modern Radars and ARPA systems have contributed hugely to safety, and so have VHF/DSC systems. This is irrespective of the fact that there have been more than a few ‘VHF aided collisions’ at sea. I daresay the VHF has saved many more lives than it has taken, and even when it has contributed to casualties, the reason has been the misuse of the VHF, usually in an attempt at collision avoidance, rather than the equipment itself.

I will ignore the unnatural resistance of many senior Officers at sea to new technology. I never did understand, back in the eighties, why many Master’s insisted on sights being taken regularly when a perfectly good satellite navigator was installed on board. In their place, I would have mandated a sight once a week to keep one’s hand in and left it at that.

Obviously, the biggest factor working against the correct use and the realisation of the full potential of any equipment is officer training; this is especially true of new equipment. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that training is lackluster and so officers who are poorly trained in vital ship specific equipment are placed in positions of critical responsibility. To add to this now systemic risk, poor practices are followed or the equipment is used for purposes it was not intended for (AIS in collision avoidance). In the absence of Company and Master oversight, such unsafe practices flourish. An accident then becomes a statistical probability. I draw your attention to all the issues we continue to have with the AIS, and fear that the introduction of the ECDIS will magnify these manifold.

What is required today is not a debate on the pros and cons of the ECDIS itself, not least because the time to do that is long past. What is required, instead, is for us to realise that there exist major systemic deficiencies and lacuna in our training and modify those accordingly. Many are not ECDIS specific, but I believe that the introduction of the ECDIS, the integration of systems and the distinct possibility of officers facing information overload requires that they be absolutely familiar with not just each equipment that is feeding into their ECDIS workstations but be also familiar with the integration system itself.

We must, therefore, correct the holes in our training, some of which are:
• Lack of stress on the normal and time tested practices of navigational seamanship. Chief amongst these: lookout and enhanced situational awareness in close quarters situations or in the proximity of hazards. Our present syllabus of training, heavily tilted in favour of equipment, assumes that common sense is common. It is not.
• Incomplete industry realisation, so far, that the present generation is generally overly reliant on electronics. Youngsters more used to sending SMS’ on mobile phones, for example, are more prone to sending short messages on the AIS to other ships in close quarters situations or relying absolutely on radar CPAs alone (regardless of stabilisation) when risk of collision exists. Training must counter this mindset at a basic level, and indeed at all stages of a navigator’s career.
• Incomplete industry realisation that some senior Masters are not technologically inclined, and tend to use modern equipment in a limited way, sticking to functions they are familiar with and no more. Whether it is the training that is inadequate or the attitude becomes moot. The fact is that technological advancement invariably results in reduced manpower, so not using a system to its full potential has escalating safety implications. Incomplete familiarity with equipment in use, and, critically, with its limitations, is not uncommon with junior officers either. Many seem to be more familiar with the gimmicks manufacturers install on systems rather than the hard core functions essential for navigational safety. Training must address this.

Two final thoughts. One, although I am against standardisation of human beings, I am all for standardisation of equipment. An example of how this standardisation makes my life easier (and more importantly, makes the ship safer) is the Radar/ARPA. On every ship, regardless of the manufacturer, a Radar will have standardised controls and displays. The controls for gain, clutter, tuning, range, rings, VRM, EBL et al will be usually intuitively placed, and in similar locations. The terminology used: CPA, TCPA, Head Up, True Motion, Trial maneuvers, Trails, Vectors etc., will be identical regardless of whether the Radar is Japanese or American or European. We must have a similar system for the ECDIS. The IMO must mandate, in detail, that the controls and terminology used in the ECDIS be standardised for ease of use and navigational safety, and that manuals be comprehensive. Some of the other existing navigational equipment does not follow this standardisation and we manage fine, but then much of this equipment is not as critical as the ECDIS is likely to be.

Two, at least some of the onus for ECDIS training should lie with the owners, who must be required to give their officers generic and type specific training in the equipment. I am sure that we are looking at an ECDIS STCW course in the future; an IMO approved course already exists. However, generic training is not enough. Regardless of the levels of standardisation, training must be specific to the equipment that the officer will be using when he takes over on board. I am a little apprehensive, given Owner practices of compliance with ‘ship specific training’ I have seen thus far, of how this will turn out.

The introduction of the ECDIS will give us an opportunity to start correcting the formal and informal practices in equipment use that have crept into our systems. The ECDIS’ potential for enhancement of safety can only be realised if we excise the additional risks unfamiliarity and poor training tend to generate. We must standardise equipment, and train officers in the complete and proper use of the ECDIS and its limitations. A failure to do this will only result in introducing new risks in the art and science of navigation at sea.