The letter asked NMEA to help in creating a more universal interface standard to accommodate the DSC radios gathering information from GPS. However, it also addressed a number of other problems that continue to plague the DSC system from the end-users perspective. The primary issues the CG continues to have are 1) failure of boaters to have a GPS integrated with the VHF, and therefore failing to deliver the vessels position in a distress call. 2) Failure of boaters to register their DSC radios with their MMSI numbers, ie, entering the number into the radio. This means the CG is unable to determine WHO is sending a distress signal. 3) The need for follow-up voice communications on Channel 16 once the DSC distress call has been sent. For those of you who know me or who have attended my classes for Boatwise, you know how hard I emphasize these points.
Your first step is to upgrade your VHF radio to a DSC capable one. These radios have been on the market for over 10 years now and the Coast Guard has reached critical mass in its Rescue 21 system that allows for DSC radios to deliver digital encoded signals in the case of distress. As of this winter, in the USA, a DSC radio must meet the requirements for “Class D”. The basic RTCM 101 minimums are no longer acceptable. A basic DSC radio will run you about $150. You can spend more and it will get you some added “bells and whistle”. But at minimum financial output, you can gain huge returns on safety. You can use your existing antenna; no upgrades are needed. Shop around or call Blue Frontier with your questions.
Your next step is to go online to any number of websites and register for your MMSI number. I recommend either www.boatus.com or www.seatow.com. Either of these sites will allow you to register for a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) without cost and without having to sign up for any of their services. In other words, you do not need to be a member of either organization to use their site to acquire your MMSI. Once on either site, a quick search will get you to the online form. You will need information like your vessels registration number, but NOT any info about your VFH radio, ie, serial number. Once you have filled out the form, the site will send you your MMSI number. This is a 9 digit number that you then need to take to your VHF and enter it. More on that below.
The MMSI is a federally regulated number. If you want, you can go to the FCC and apply for the number, but it will cost you money and you will not get it immediately as you will with the above sites. If you already have an FCC issued radio license, there are you should contact the FCC about have to transfer that to your MMSI.
Finally, you must enter your newly acquired MMSI number into your VHF. READ THE MANUAL!!! Because this is a federally regulated number, you are given just TWO chances to enter the number correctly into your VHF. If you fail to do so, the radio must be removed and sent back to the manufacturer for reset. It cannot be done in the field.
I strongly recommend you read the manual and familiarize yourself with the buttons and menus on your VHF. Find the menu where you will enter the number and read the manual as to how to do so. Not all radios have full keypads, so it will likely be series of “knob turns” or “up arrow, down arrow” commands. Once you are ready, go ahead and enter the number. Most radios will require you to enter it twice to verify it was correct.
Once your MMSI number is registered, you now have the power of DSC radio and the USCG Resue 21 system available to you in an emergency. If you spent a little more for the “bells and whistles”, you will also find a host of other fun little tricks that DSC will give you, including individual calling to your friends and position polling so you can find out where they are catching all the fish without giving away the location over the open airwaves. Position polling is also a popular with sailboat race committees during regattas and long distance rallies.
Keep in mind, if you purchased a boat that already has an MMSI entered in the radio, you MUST re-register that number. The number stays with the boat. You don’t want the CG calling the former owner instead of your emergency contacts in the event of a distress call.
This is topic that will likely be revisted often on these pages. If you have questions about DSC or features available on different models, give us a call at Blue Frontier.