Source: Transport Canada
Information last verified: 18/09/2010
Marine Radio Communications
Regulated marine radio communication equipment includes:
- marine VHF radios (with the new Digital Selective Calling (DSC) option on channel 70);
- marine MF/HF – DSC radios;
- Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs);
- NAVTEX; and
These products and services work together to form the international system known as the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). They quickly relay distress alerts to the Canadian Coast Guard and other vessels in your area.
Pleasure craft do not have to carry GMDSS-compatible equipment, but it is a good idea. If you have it, connect it to a Global Positioning System receiver to make sure that your exact location is automatically sent in a digital distress alert in case of an emergency. This way, rescuers will immediately know exactly where you are and will arrive sooner.
Global Positioning System (GPS)
While more and more boat operators rely on marine GPS to tell them where they are on the water, it is a good idea to keep charts on board in case the GPS fails. The GPS is a worldwide radio-navigation system made possible by a network of satellites and monitoring stations. Its receivers can calculate where you are, anywhere on the planet, to within 30 m (98’5”). The Canadian Coast Guard supplies a differential GPS that provides an accuracy of within 10 m (32’10”).
If you are using GPS on the water, make sure it is marine GPS. Automotive GPS will not give you the information you need on the water.
Marine VHF Radio and the Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI)
Marine VHF radio is generally the best way of sending a distress alert. If you have a VHF radio, keep it tuned to channel 16. Know where you are at all times and be prepared to describe your specific location.
Currently, all VHF marine radio operators must have a Restricted Operator Certificate(Maritime) – ROC(M). Industry Canada has delegated the ROC(M) to the Canadian Power and Sail Squadrons (CPS). Contact the CPS or visit www.cps-ecp.ca for more information about courses available in your area.
If you are buying a new VHF radio, make sure it has the new Digital Selective Calling (DSC) feature on channel 70. This provides automatic digital distress alerts. The Canadian Coast Guard provides DSC channel 70 service on the east and west coasts, as well as on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.
Remember, VHF radio channel 16 is used for emergency and calling purposes only. Once you contact another vessel on channel 16, switch to another working frequency. VHF channel 70 is used only for DSC (digital) communication – not voice. Use your VHF radio as described in the VHF Radiotelephone Practices and Procedures Regulations. Your owner’s manual will explain how to make a DSC call to another vessel or to a shore station that has DSC capability.
To make a digital call, each radio must have a nine-digit Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number. These numbers are assigned free of charge by Industry Canada. Visit www.ic.gc.ca or contact them for more information.
Calling for Help
When in extreme danger (for example, your boat is taking on water and you are in danger of sinking or capsizing), use your VHF radio channel 16 and say “Mayday” — “Mayday” — “Mayday.” Then give the name of your boat, its position, the nature of your problem and the type of help you need.
If you need help but are not in immediate danger (for example, your motor has quit and you cannot reach shore), use channel 16 and say “Pan-Pan” — “Pan-Pan” — “Pan-Pan.” Then give the name of your boat, its position, the nature of your problem and the type of help you need.
Limits of a Cell Phone
While you may be able to get search and rescue assistance from the nearest Canadian Coast Guard Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS) centre by dialling *16 or #16 on a cell phone, it is not a good substitute for a marine radio and this is not the best way to issue a distress call.
- Cell phones can lose reception or get wet and damaged.
- Calling from your cell phone does not alert nearby vessels that you are in distress – they could be the ones to help you if they could hear you.
- Some cell phone signals cannot be followed back to your location by rescuers.
- Not all cell providers offer the *16 or #16 service. Find out if this service is available for your phone.
Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs)
These floating radio distress beacons can transmit for hours. They can be manually activated or can float free from a sinking or overturned vessel. Their signals give your position to a network of satellites, which then sends it to Joint Rescue Coordination Centres. They play an important role in an emergency. Although pleasure craft are not required to carry them, they are a very good idea.
As of February 1, 2009, signals from 121.5/243 MHz beacons will no longer be processed. As a result, only 406 MHz beacons will work on the water. All beacon owners and users should start taking steps to replace their 121.5/243 MHz beacons with 406 MHz beacons as soon as possible.
EPIRBs must be registered with the Canadian Beacon Registry at http://beacons.nss.gc.ca. Remember to keep your contact information up to date.
If you see a distress signal, the law requires you to see if you can help without risking your life or the safety of your boat. When possible, you must also contact the nearest Joint Rescue Coordination Centre to inform them of the type and location of the distress signal you have seen.
Learning the common distress signals will help you quickly recognize when someone is in trouble so that you can place a call for help that much faster. These signals are listed at the back of this guide.
Never send a distress signal unless you are in a real emergency. Sending false distress signals is against the law. It wastes the time of search and rescue personnel and may prevent them from answering, or take them farther away from, real emergencies.
Canadian Coast Guard
VHF/DSC radios can send distress alerts that tell the Canadian Coast Guard and nearby vessels that you need help right away. To find out where VHF/DSC services are available, visit www.ccg-gcc.gc.ca or contact a Canadian Coast Guard Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS) centre.
MCTS centres provide Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) and a Maritime Mobile Safety Service. VTS provides traffic and waterway information to vessels via radio communication.
When near a VTS area, listen to the local VTS radio frequency to learn the intended movements of larger vessels.
MCTS centres also provide a safety service that monitors international distress and calling radio frequencies for distress calls and communications needs.
They also continuously broadcast Notices to Shipping and weather and ice reports on marine radio frequencies. These are published along with the VTS sector frequencies in the Canadian Coast Guard publication Radio Aids to Marine Navigation. You can access the most recent edition at www.ccg-gcc.gc.ca.