The provision of effective and reliable safety infrastructure is a given in Australia. When you call 000, you expect the police/ambulance/fire brigade to come to your aid.

Well, if you are at sea in a small boat in Australian waters, your radio calls for assistance could go unanswered.

The responsibility for providing safety radio services to vessels at sea is split between the Commonwealth and the states/territories.

Large merchant vessels trading overseas or interstate are the responsibility of the Commonwealth, through the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA).  The remainder of smaller commercial vessels and all recreational craft (i.e. your average yacht or small boat) are looked after by state and territory government marine departments.

The Commonwealth has traditionally provided a network of shore radio stations for shipping. The Coast Radio Network was originally established about 1912. It was run quite successfully for 90-odd years by various Commonwealth instrumentalities — for the latter part of its life, the network was operated by Telstra.  The stations were located in all capital cities and some coastal regional towns.

The Telstra Coast Radio Network was financed by the Commonwealth under what is known as Community Service Obligation (CSO) funding. In the 1990s, this funding was set at about $8 million per annum.

Small change, really, in the wider government picture — especially for a safety service.

The Telstra stations did a good job. The operators were all professionals and the equipment/infrastructure was of a uniformly high standard.

The network provided services for all types of vessel — large and small …

However, technology moves on — international amendments to marine radio standards brought about by the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) set the scene for major changes to the Australian Coast Radio Network. In the mid/late 1990s, AMSA embarked upon a tender exercise to test the market for an alternative to Telstra.

Kordia, a New Zealand company, was selected to provide a new replacement network. The replacement stations are located in the western and eastern Australian deserts at Wiluna (Western Australia) and Charleville (Queensland) respectively. These two stations are remote controlled from the Australian Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Canberra.

The original Telstra Australian Coast Radio Network stations closed on July 1 2002.

The new AMSA stations were originally intended to replicate all services of the previous Telstra Coast Radio Network — i.e. provide services to all vessels.

However, because of a dispute over funding, the states/territories decided to establish their own marine radio network, designed for communications with small craft.

Unfortunately, due to several technical and operational deficiencies, the state/territory stations do not provide the same level of service as the previous Telstra operated Coast Radio Network.

Many of the new radio stations produce a far weaker transmitted signal and may have difficulty in receiving weak signals from ships in distress.

In Sydney, for example, acres of antenna systems and numerous high-powered transmitters at the old SydneyRadio station at La Perouse were replaced by a single transmitter, producing one tenth the power of the previous transmitters … operating into a six-metre antenna on a wooden pole.

Unfortunately, ships don’t normally get into trouble on calm, sunny days.

Sinkings are inevitably accompanied by screaming winds, driving rain and mountainous seas. More often than not, antennas on small vessels in distress are damaged by the weather — resulting in very much reduced performance from the boat’s radio system.

In these extreme circumstances, the last thing needed by the poor sod in his/her sinking boat is a low-powered, hard-to-understand signal from the shore station — it needs to produce a powerful signal, from high-powered transmitters operating into efficient antennas — as the previous network did.

There is also significant variation between the states/territories in the configuration of individual stations. Some states, notably New South Wales and Queensland, have adopted a minimalist approach, while South Australia have contracted a professional service provider (Airservices Australia). This results in a disparity in network coverage and performance.

The original Coast Radio Network used a standard configuration — all the stations operated with identical antennas, transmitters and receivers, arranged in a uniform fashion.

What about the volunteer marine rescue stations?

While your correspondent has the highest regard for volunteers, it is unfair that they be effectively forced to make up for deficiencies in the state/territory provided marine radio networks.

Volunteers have neither the staffing nor the funding to provide a professional level distress and safety service — and neither should they — it isn’t their job.

What does it all mean?

From the average recreational boater’s perspective, the state/territory marine radio network performs at probably 30% the efficiency of its predecessor.

Not surprisingly, calls to the new state/territory operated marine radio network have often gone unanswered.

There have been 38 known instances of distress/safety calls from small ships in Australian waters being missed by the state/territory stations.  All of these calls have been received by the New Zealand Coast Radio Station at Taupo …

We effectively have a foreign station providing Australia’s marine radio distress and safety watch … an amazing situation for a developed nation.

It is puzzling that the normally risk-averse state/territory governments have allowed themselves to become so exposed.

One wonders what a coroner would say.

We regularly hear stories of state/territory politicians throwing millions of dollars around on useless projects. The irony is that providing an effective Coast Radio Network would not be expensive.

The quickest and simplest solution would be for the states/territories to contract Kordia, the service providers for the Commonwealth network, to provide a distress and safety service for small ships.

One hopes that common sense prevails.

Peter Fray

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