Thursday, May 9, 2013

5/9/2013 Maritime News: VESSEL TRAFFIC SERVICES


Official U.S. Coast Guard Photo of Vessel Traffic Controller at Work

 Since the 1970s busy ports around the world have been adopting vessel traffic control or management systems that increasingly appear to parallel air traffic control systems. Some are run by local port authorities, some are corporate run, but most are services of national coast guard organizations. Most national coast guard operated vessel traffic services (VTSs) require vessel traffic control watch standers to undergo pilot like training including periodic retraining. This usually involves boarding a moving ship via the Jacobs ladder, the harbor pilot's normal means of boarding. A few Pilots and others who climb Jacobs ladders are killed every year in falls from these devices or the mechanical failure of the device. Generally most national coast guard vessel traffic controllers consider ship boarding the only real personal injury or death hazard to themselves in their profession. Local Pilots and agency watch standers once on watch inside the Vessel Traffic Center (VTC) usually feel that they are in a safe work place. Today, in Italy that perception changed.

 At this writing six people are known dead and three are still missing after the container ship JOLLY NERO crashed into the Genoa vessel traffic control tower late Tuesday.  The tower was over 160 feet in height and looked quite a bit like an air traffic control tower commonly seen at air ports. Two of the identified dead  at this writing were  Italian Coast Guard personnel and one was a local harbor pilot. In the United States many of our Coast Guard operated vessel traffic centers are jointly manned by both Coast Guard personnel and local harbor pilots. In the United States joint manning is driven by not only the usual common sense consideration of the need for intense local navigational knowledge normally associated with local pilots but also by constitutional considerations.

The U.S. constitution places responsibility for pilot services with the individual states, and  assigns federal responsibility for aids to navigation (buoys, light houses, day marks, later in history radio direction signals, LORAN, now GPS, and vessel traffic services). Vessel Traffic services are hybrids with elements of both aids to navigation and traditional pilotage. Around the world joint manning of vessel traffic centers (VTCs) by both the national coast guard like service and the local pilots is a norm. According to the Italian Coast Guard the accident happened at the shift change so two watch sections for a total of 13 people were in the tower when it was struck. In addition to the known dead and missing four other people were injured , two seriously in the tower collapse, one lost a foot.

 This allision (allision is the admiralty legal term for involuntary contact with a fixed object, collision indicates the same with another vessel) is the worst maritime accident in Italy since the COSTA CONCORDIA cruise ship struck a rock and killed 32 people.  The weather at the time of the allision of the JOLLY NERO with the traffic tower was clear and calm. A local pilot was aboard and two tugs along side. Investigation at last report was focused on a possible mechanical failure. Many vessel traffic centers were located near the waters edge for a real view of some critical point in the harbor before recent improvements in combined GPS, Radar, AIS, and computer technology, plus low light and high definition TV monitoring technology truly made more remote locations possible. However brick and motor is expensive and physical relocation of VTCs has not been a priority, and few are so close to the water that an actual allision is a real danger. To learn more about the technical problems that had to be solved to make VTC's truly locatable out of sight of the water besides the technological developments described above go to our VESSEL TRAFFIC SERVICE SECTION and read the story of the "FUZZY ALGORITHM" or check out the book

  Sometimes technology has to wait on applications which in turn have to wait on mathematical research and testing. Afterwards brick and mortar changes have to wait on economics, politics, and budgets. We have not been able to find a public domain photo of the Italian VTC tower, there are news service photos on some of the web sites linked in this posting. But by all outward appearances it looked like a fairly new state of the art facility, sometimes the state of the art changes over night. Even in the best run nations major infrastructure can't change that fast. Our hearts go out to the families of all of casualties. Some of us have spent years working in VTS and as pilots. Most of us only considered the possibility of a Jacobs ladder mishap, if we ever thought of on duty injury possibilities. This accident happened as one half of the VTC work force was preparing to turn over the watch and go home and the other half was preparing to start their workday. At each station, similar to the one pictured in this post one controller or pilot was seated and the on coming relief was standing just behind him focused on those screens and the information they were generating. They were probably quite used to large ships maneuvering slow with tugs alongside into the berths adjacent to the towers. Things apparently went wrong so fast that there was little if any warning. Additionally the natural instinct and discipline of the VTC would incline towards "working the problem" not running from the console. In this case there was no working the problem, but they either died trying or had no warning. The bitter sweet part of this for the Italian Coast Guard, the Genoa Pilots Association and all of the surviving families is that it is highly unlikely that anyone died running from their duty station.

Below is a link to a video on integrated European Union VTS systems:

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