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Digital Selective Calling (DSC) Radios

The Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS)


DSC radios are an integral part of the Global Maritime Distress Safety System
(GMDSS), which is an internationally recognized and agreed upon set of
procedures, communications protocols and equipment that can be used to
rescue distressed aircraft, ships and boats. The GMDSS divides the globe into
four sea areas and specifies the carriage requirements of vessels that use these
areas. The vessels area of operation determines its carriage requirements. For
example, a recreational vessel in sea area A1, which typically is about 20
nautical miles from the shore, has no carriage requirements. Vessels in the
remaining 3 sea areas, which collectively extend north and south to the polar
regions, must variously carry combinations of VHF, HF and MF DSC radios,
Category 1 or 2 Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB), Search
and Rescue Radar Transponders (SARTS) and NAVTEX receivers. The
remaining GMDSS components that make up the global system are ground
stations to detect VHF, HF and MF DSC distress calls, and satellite systems like
the CONPAS-SARSAT, which detects EPRIB distress signals, and INMARSAT,
which is used for communications. The Great Lakes, including Lake Simcoe, are
also covered under the GMDSS. The Canadian Coast Guard installed DSC
stations at shore based sites covering the Canadian sides of the Great Lakes
and Lake Simcoe, in early 2006. The American side, if not already operational,
apparently will be by the end of 2007. Most North American coastal stations
should also be complete by 2007.
Introduction to DSC radios
Marine VHF radios that have Digital Selective Calling (DSC) capabilities are
easily recognized by the large red button located on the radios front panel. It is
labeled DISTRESS and covered with a transparent flap that has to be raised
before the button can be depressed. Depressing this button and holding it down
for 5 seconds will result in a distress message being sent The main technical
difference between a standard marine VHF radio and one that has the DSC
capability lies in the way Channel 70 has been implemented. On a standard
marine radio CH 70 is implemented as a receive-only channel for a VHF
Frequency Modulated (FM) signal. On a DSC radio this channel is now reserved
for DSC only and should never be used for voice communication. In other words
all data transmitted and received on this channel should be digital and based on
recommendation ITU-R M.493-11, which uses a synchronous system based on
characters composed from a 10 bit error detecting code. Delving into the
technical details of this code is well beyond the scope of this short discussion.
Suffice to say the algorithms used allow for digital signals to be unlocked at
receivers that have the proper key (MMSI number). The operational frequency of
CH 70 is 156.525 MHz and the operation is simplex (Transmission (TX) and
Reception (RX) use the same frequency). CH 70 is now the channel that the
Coast Guard monitors. This is the channel that carries all the DSC transmissions.
In effect, this has become the new CH 16. The CCG will apparently be

monitoring CH 16 for the foreseeable future but the time will come when boaters
will have to rely on DSC rather than CH 16 as the distress, safety and calling
channel. Keep in mind though that DSC does not supplant or completely take
away the need to use voice communications. If you send a distress signal using
DSC, your radio will switch back to CH 16 to allow for further communications,
should this be necessary, or even practical, once the digital message has been
sent. Voice communication can be carried out after any DSC message and, with
some radios, the radio will even switch to the channel of your choice. It works
much the same as a paging system where the recipient receives a text message
on the pager and then phones the sender.
Classes of DSC radios
Class A and Class B DSC radios are used on compulsory fitted vessels. Class A
is MF/HF and is for vessels over 300 GRT. Class B is HF/VHF and used on nonpleasure craft that do not require Class A equipment. Class C has been
withdrawn. Class D covers VHF DSC radios and therefore is the one of interest
to the recreational sailor. It should be noted that Class D radios can also be used
on non-recreational vessels that do not require Class A or B equipment. There is
another specification out there called the SC-101. It is a US specification and is
aimed at the recreational boat market only.
Differences between Class D and SC-101.
DSC radios manufactured to the SC-101 specification do not meet the minimum
carriage requirements for non-recreational boats. They can therefore only be
used on recreational vessels, which of course do not have carriage requirements.
It is better however to stay clear of this type of radio. Its price is a dead giveaway,
usually around $200 or cheaper. The box the radio is packed in should clearly
indicate it conforms to the SC-101 specification. The ideal DSC radio should
have two receivers, one of which is always tuned to CH 70. This is very important
because if you are not tuned to CH 70 when a DSC message has been sent, you
will miss it. On the other hand, if your radio is continuously tuned to CH 70 to
monitor DSC messages, you will have no voice communications at all. As
mentioned earlier CH 70 is for DSC only. Some of these cheaper radios jump
back to CH 70 at intervals to check for activity. This is much like when you select
TRI or DUAL-WATCH on your radio. On Wednesday nights for example, the
prudent racer will tune to CH 72 and select TRI-WATCH. The radio will then at
intervals check for activity on CH 9 and CH 16. If however you happen to be
transmitting on CH 72 you will miss anything coming in on CH 16, or CH 9 for
that matter. This is the same problem that exists with the SC-101 specification
and the reliable monitoring of CH 70. A true Class D radio sells for around $400
but is worth the extra money. One day your life could depend on it. Regarding
true Class D radios there is also a word of caution: because you buy a radio that
claims to be a Class D radio, that is not a guarantee that it has two receivers.
Sometimes specifications provided by manufacturers are muddy perhaps
ingeniously so! Always ask the dealer to provide the manufacturers specification
that matches the model number exactly. If it does not spell out two receivers,

move on to the next model or manufacturer. Mind you, if you stay with
manufacturers like ICOM for example ($400 +) you shouldnt have any problems.
Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) numbers
As the acronym DSC implies, selective calling using digital transmissions is
possible. The key to DSC is the MMSI number. It is a 9-digit number that can be
compared to a telephone number. Just as it possible to telephone someone by
dialing a number, a digital transmission can be directed to a DSC radio that has
the correct MMSI number. Industry Canada supplies MMSI numbers. There are
MMSI numbers available for individual ship stations (for recreational boaters this
category covers VHF/DSC only for unlicensed radios). The first 3 digits identify
the county, so individual ship station MMSI numbers in Canada will always start
with 316. My MMSI number, for example, is 316010765. Anyone wishing to
contact me privately can send a message referencing that number and only my
ship station will receive it. There are also MMSI numbers available for ship
station groups. These numbers will have a zero preceding the country identifier:
0316. Whitby Yacht Club is a ship station group and our ship station group MMSI
number is 031600036. Whitby Yacht Club members with DSC radios can load
this number into their radios appropriate directories and any message directed to
this group MMSI number will be received by all individual ship stations in that
group that have this number in their directories. There is another category of
MMSI numbers that is applicable to the CCG. These MMSI numbers add two
zeros before the country identifier, for example 003169876. It is possible to get a
ship station MMSI number from Industry Canada before you even buy your DSC
radio. When you get your radio one of the first things you should do after
installation is to install your MMSI number. Radios do come in different flavors
but in general the DSC function will not operate without a ship station MMSI
number.
Operating a DSC radio
Different manufacturers have different ideas about how to access the functions of
their radios. In general though a good Class D radio will provide a menu that
allows for the following DSC options:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.

Individual
Group
All ships
Position request
Position send
DSC standby
Receive log
Directory

1. Individual calls allow the user to transmit DSC to an individual ship station.
This can be done by selecting the ships name from the menu or manually by
entering the MMSI number. You can also receive individual calls. Responses

2.

3.

4.

5.
6.
7.
8.

to your calls will depend on whether the station you are contacting is staffed
or unattended. If it is staffed a COMPLETED message will be received, and if
unattended, an UNATTENDED message will be received. Station name and
MMSI may also be sent back, along with the COMPLETED or UNATTENDED
message.
Group calls allow the user to transmit DSC to a group ship station, for
example Whitby Yacht Club. Selecting the group MMSI number facilitates
this.
All ships calls, which cover urgency and safety messages, transmits DSC to
all ships. The radio will allow you to select URGENCY or SAFETY before
transmitting the DSC message. After the message is sent the radio will
immediately switch to CH 16 for voice communications for further information
on the nature of the URGENCY or SAFETY call.
Position request allows you to request the positional co-ordinates of any
ship using DSC. This assumes the DSC radio on the ship being contacted is
receiving positional data from a GPS.
Position send allows you to send your present positional co-ordinates using
DSC to any ship station.
DSC standby call will alert any ships station trying to contact you that the
radio is unattended by sending back an UNATTENDED message.
DSC receive log will log received calls and distress calls. The number will
depend on the radio. Most will store 100 received calls, and 20 distress calls.
DSC call directory allows you to enter the name and MMSI number of
vessels you wish to communicate with. Selections are made from this
directory when making DSC calls. The number of vessels that can be stored
depends on the radio. One hundred is about an average amount.

The DSC distress call


This is not initiated from the menu. As mentioned earlier, lifting a flap and
depressing the front-panel red distress button for 5 seconds activates this call.
This is equivalent to sending a Mayday message on CH 16 and should never be
done unless the vessel is in grave and imminent danger. Most DSC radios do not
immediately send the distress signal after 5 seconds but first present the
operator with a list of distress conditions. Once the operator has made the
appropriate selection then the distress signal is sent. This distress signal will
contain the MMSI number of the vessel in distress. From this the CCG can
determine the name of the vessel, its gross tonnage, its length, the owners name
and address, its general classification (e.g. pleasure craft), the emergency
contact person ashore and telephone number, and the maximum number of
people that could be on board. Most important of all though is that if the radio is
being updated with positional information from a GPS then the position of the
vessel in distress is also relayed in the DSC distress signal. This most probably
is the most important component of any distress signal. Without it no one will
know where the vessel is; with it the CCG will have the vessels location to within
a few meters, assuming data from a WAAS enabled GPS is being used for the
updates. The distress signal will be repeated approximately every 3 to 5 minutes

unless the operator cancels it or the radio receives a digital acknowledgement


signal, indicating that the distress signal has been acknowledged by another ship
station. Please see further comments on this under the paragraph on the
Restricted Operators Certificate and DSC endorsement.
Limitations of DSC radios
A DSC radio is certainly no wunderkind. Its range is limited to line of sight, like
any other VHF transceiver, and although it operates in the sophisticated GMDSS
environment, its purpose is purely ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore DSC
communications. It carries no sophisticated satellite technology and does not
communicate with satellites at all. All Class D DSC radios do have NMEA 0183
inputs however that allow them to receive GPS positional data, which of course
the GPS derives from satellites in geo-stationary orbit. This is about as close as a
DSC radio will ever come to using satellite data, even though it is passed on to it
by a third party. The DSC functions that allow for individual and group
communications, all-ships calls, and position send and request, are all interesting
bells and whistles, but in reality, except for the selectivity issue, voice
communication can be used for all of these. The only area where the DSC radio
can truly be worth its salt is when it comes to sending distress calls. But this is
only true if it is being updated with co-ordinates of latitude and longitude from a
GPS. If a distressed vessel has a GPS on board that is not hooked up to the
DSC radio, the radio will allow the operator to enter, using its keypad, the coordinates. Entering an alphanumeric sequence accurately on a small keypad
while under duress may not be within everyones grasp in particular if the
owners manual is not handy. It may be easier to send a Mayday on CH 16
(assuming it is still being monitored) and use voice communication to tell the
CCG the boats position. After a distress signal is sent on CH 70 though, the
radio will switch back to CH 16 for voice communications, so this channel can still
be used to provide information to the CCG. If the CCG receive a DSC distress
signal it is certain they will monitor CH 16 for further information.
Restricted Operators Certificate (ROC) with DSC endorsement
Marine VHF radios, including those with DSC capabilities, do not require a radio
station license. To operate one of these, though, requires the operator to obtain a
Restricted Operators Certificate (ROC) with a DSC endorsement. The Canadian
Power and Sail Squadrons put on an excellent training program. It is important to
learn to use your radio properly. Familiarizing yourself with the DSC features can
not only assist you in an emergency situation but you can also prevent yourself
from being a hazard to others. Under the paragraph on how to send a distress
call it was mentioned that a distress call is terminated the moment it receives a
digital acknowledgement signal. This can perhaps be regarded as a flaw in the
system. A distress signal should only be terminated by the vessel sending it; by
the CCG; by a vessel authorized to do so by the CCG; or by a vessel that has
assisted the vessel in distress and the distress no longer exists.
Lets take an example:

A boat Gambler is in distress and sends a DSC distress signal. Another boat
Bandit is nearby and picks up the distress signal. The skipper of Bandit responds
by sending back a DSC signal acknowledging receipt of the distress signal. This
immediately terminates the distress signal sent by Gambler. If Bandit is not in a
position to assist Gambler, and if Gambler is unaware her radio is no longer
automatically sending out a distress signal, then Gambler is in big trouble. What
Bandit should have done was to respond on CH 16 that she was aware of
Gamblers plight and what she could do to assist.
This is just one example why it is important to take an ROC course where issues
like the above are covered. The more you know about your radio, and the
procedures to use it, the better equipped you will be to assist yourself and others
should the situation arise.
Have a safe and happy sailing season!