By the middle of 2011 so-called certificates of competency in operating electronic chart display and information systems, ECDIS will become mandatory. Good news for training providers but will there be enough experienced seafarers to provide that training? Mal Instone Director of Operations & Standards for ECDIS Ltd., believes a teaching crisis is on the horizon and it may take years to resolve.
No-one can deny the practical usefulness of a properly operated ECDIS. With some 32 systems currently available and at least another two being developed to join them, all with different menu systems and with information capabilities that exceed the need to know, that usefulness could be compromised, especially given the shortage of experienced people to train navigational officers.
Instone tells MAC: “I cannot speak for other training providers, but we think that there is going to be a huge demand for this training and limited supply. One of the biggest problems is that few trainers have the relevant sea experience operating with ECDIS, and this is not likely to change for a number of years”.
Although Instone expects the number of ECDIS providers to reduce over the coming years as the marketplace makes its decisions, the problem of standardisation of access to the data required by navigators remains. “There is a common operational standard, IMO Resolution A.817(19) Performance Standards for ECDIS. However, there is not yet a common menu structure, and it looks unlikely that this will happen soon. It hasn’t happened with Radar as yet. Proper training will identify the common functions, but it is still incumbent on the operator to know their system intimately” says Instone.
Given the greater mobility of today’s seafarers that intimacy with specific systems may become problematic without system-specific training. The UK’s Maritime & Coast Guard Agency requires a five-day training course on ECDIS and a one or two day course to familiarise navigators on individual systems.
In part, an immediate problem is the lack of input by experienced seafarers in the design process. Says Instone: “It is true to say that navigator involvement in the design process is lacking. I think this will certainly improve as the equipment is fitted in more and more ships during the mandation process, as it will allow more feedback from sea. I would hope to then see these systems becoming more ‘fine tuned’”.
One complaint is that manufacturers add functions of questionable practical value to promote their equipment as ‘doing more’, regardless of whether that ‘more’ is of value on the bridge. Instone cites several examples: “Off Chart Alarm, why let the ship move off the chart in the first place? Great Circle Route Planning (some systems do not provide options to allow the GC to be broken up into individual Rhumb Lines. This would display a lack of basic navigational knowledge; Man Overboard – why do most systems provide a ‘dumb’ reference to a MOB? Why not tie it in with calculated Set and Drift to provide a more accurate prediction of their location? There is certainly a tendency to provide more functionality than is required.”
For MAC there is further issue: Certain jurisdictions are notorious for their ‘diploma mills’. Given the money to be made from the market for ECDIS training regardless of the quality of the training, and the reluctance with the shipping industry to adopt competency assessment, one has to wonder just how much those ECDIS certificates of competency will be worth beyond the paper they are printed on?