Features February 2019 Issue

Register Your VHF Radio

The U.S. Coast Guard continues be concerned about the misuse (or lack of use) of VHF radios for distress calling. Many boaters, it seems, don’t understand the importance of registering their radio equipment, and how to properly use Digital Selective Calling (DSC) feature. Here we offer a brief overview of the most frequently asked questions regarding DSC. More information can be found at the Coast Guard’s Navigation Center website, www.navcen.uscg.gov.

WHAT IS DSC? DSC’s foremost purpose is distress alerting. With the press of a button, users can send a pre-configured distress message to emergency personnel and other DSC-equipped boats in range. The digital message is sent over channel 70 and contains pertinent information about the boat, its Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number, owner details, and emergency contact information. When a DSC radio is connected to a GPS, the Mayday includes the boat’s location. The transmission takes about one-third of a second and is automatically repeated until a rescue authority answers. Because the signal is digital, it has a better chance than a voice call of getting through in rough conditions.

A DSC transmission includes the priority of the call (distress, urgency, safety, routine), who the call is being sent to (all ships or a specific ship/station), and the transmitting boat’s identity, location, and nature of distress. DSC also allows sailors to use their VHF radios like a cell phone for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications, without interfering with VHF hailing traffic and without the limitations and cost of cell coverage.

A cover protects the DSC distress button to prevent accidental activation. The button should only be used in an emergency.

WHAT IS AN MMSI NUMBER? All boats operating on the high seas are assigned one nine-digit MMSI for all onboard equipment capable of transmitting and receiving digital signals—including EPIRBs, AIS transponders, DSC-capable VHFs, all INMARSAT satellite terminals, etc.—and that number serves as an identifier for the boat. Once a boat owner registers the vessel with the appropriate agency (the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S.), the boat’s emergency contact information is linked to the MMSI number, which is then programmed into the onboard electronics. When a distress call is broadcast, the MMSI is included in the message, giving rescue and emergency personnel accurate details of the boat.

The FCC and Coast Guard strongly encourage all boats to apply for an MMSI to enable DSC use in the case of an emergency. With the Coast Guard’s VHF-based Rescue 21 vessel ID system adding more and more stations, having the ability to send a DSC distress call will greatly increase a boater’s chances of rescue.

HOW DO I GET AN MMSI? For recreational boats operating in U.S. waters, boat owners can attain an MMSI through the FCC (888-225-5322, www.fcc.gov) or another approved agency, such as BoatUS (800/563-1536, www.boatus.com/mmsi/), or the US Power Squadrons www.usps.org/php/mmsi_new/), radios registered through Sea Tow can still be managed through its website (Sea Tow (800-4SEATOW, www.seatow.com/tools-and-education/mmsi). However, all U.S. flagged commercial boats and those recreational boats operating in international waters must get their MMSI license directly from the FCC. You can start the process online by filing FCC Forms 159 (www.fcc.gov/formpage.html#159) and 605 (www.fcc.gov/formpage.html#605). If you think your boat may ever be sailing international waters, we suggest getting your MMSI from the FCC. Otherwise, a new MMSI will have to be attained from the FCC and entered into all onboard digital electronics before leaving U.S. waters.

Comments (12)

In addition, DSC and MMSI''s make it easier for boaters to reach each other. By putting your friends MMSI in your radio''s directory and yours in theirs, using DSC to hail each other beats needing to listen for hails on Ch 9, et. al.

Posted by: BtheSailor | February 4, 2019 4:29 PM    Report this comment

When I purchased my used boat I was able to have the MMSI number already in the radio transferred to me saving the cost and hassle of sending the radio in for reprogramming. Also note that on at least some radios you can send a distress call using the menu buttons on the front of the mic never touching the red distress button. I accidentally did so while trying to use the radio without my glasses. USCG was very understanding and eventually complimented me on having updated my MMSI information.

Posted by: kk999 | February 3, 2019 10:16 AM    Report this comment

Just took the plunge to apply for FCC MMSI since we plan to cruise Canadian waters. Some notes to those who may follow:
- suggest you first call the FCC help desk at 877-480-3201. Might have to hold a while for a rep, but they're VERY helpful and will send an email with very clear instructions and links.
- you're going to apply for two things: ships radio license, and restricted operators license
- this ain't free: $220 for the ship license (good for 10 yrs), and $70 for the restricted operators license (one time fee)
- I'm told to expect both licenses via email (as opted) within 1-2 days.

Posted by: H dock | January 30, 2019 11:07 AM    Report this comment

Just took the plunge to apply for FCC MMSI since we plan to cruise Canadian waters. Some notes to those who may follow:
- suggest you first call the FCC help desk at 877-480-3201. Might have to hold a while for a rep, but they're VERY helpful and will send an email with very clear instructions and links.
- you're going to apply for two things: ships radio license, and restricted operators license
- this ain't free: $220 for the ship license (good for 10 yrs), and $70 for the restricted operators license (one time fee)
- I'm told to expect both licenses via email (as opted) within 1-2 days.

Posted by: H dock | January 30, 2019 11:07 AM    Report this comment

FYI, anyone that wishes to view the DSC explanatory videos, please go to you tube and search for captainjohn49. Click on captainjohn49. Then click on playlists. And enjoy. They are free, no subscription, no ads....just my way of helping my fellow sailors. (btw, be sure to look for captainjohn49, with no spaces.)

Fair winds to all.
John
s/v Annie Laurie

Posted by: ka4wja | January 30, 2019 10:57 AM    Report this comment

One thing I have not seen mentioned here is the need for an FRN (FCC Registration number) Which is required to obtain a Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit. This permit is required by Canadian authorities if one is going to be operating in their territorial waters or moving through their lock systems such as the Welland Canal system. When using this lock system they require the use of your VHF radio, and proof that you have this operator permit. It's not hard to get, I think the form is available at the same location as the MMSI through the FCC

Posted by: Treenut | January 28, 2019 7:21 PM    Report this comment

DSC (Digital Selective Calling) has been with us since the GMDSS was phased into our maritime world in the 1990's (fully implemented, and mandatory for all 160+ signatory nations and all SOLAS vessels Feb 1, 1999)...so, after 20-some years we should all have both registered our radios / gotten an MMSI# from the FCC (or other gov't authority, for other nations' flagged vessels), and understood how DSC (and the GMDSS) actually works...

In that vein, over the past 5 years I've put together a series of videos that explain the entire DSC system (VHF and MF/HF) as well as help explain the GMDSS. These are all free, for all my fellow sailors/mariners to learn from....and are produced LIVE, as-it-happens, in the real-world, on-board an offshore sailboat, with no script, no laboratory simulations, etc., just my radios and my voice...

But, I cannot post any l i n k s to any of these videos here....perhaps the editors will do so?

Fair winds.

John
s/v Annie Laurie

Posted by: ka4wja | January 28, 2019 2:20 PM    Report this comment

The article misses one important point: for most DSC capable VHF radios, and all new models, you only get one shot at entering your MMSI number. To update or change the number (like I had to do for a new-to-me used boat), you have to send the radio back to the company or authorized service center to clear the old number and allow you to program a new one. I understand the USCG requires that one-time only feature to discourage DSC abuse by knuckleheads. Punishing the masses for the sins of a few...

Posted by: H dock | January 26, 2019 1:12 PM    Report this comment

@ jeffspc88mx

The shiny red button or DSC distress message is only good for about 6 miles or so on a hand held. A handheld in the cockpit of your boat is about 3 miles to the horizon. Ship to ship may allow 6-9 miles of range and ship to shore station might allow 16 or so miles of communications depending on the shore station antenna height. On passage well offshore you may want to consider a satellite solution for your Shiny Red button.

Posted by: rav555 | January 26, 2019 11:24 AM    Report this comment

The proper use of the Marine VHF radio spectrum is defined by international treaties. If sailors wanted to learn the proper techniques for VHF use and how to issue or relay a distress call then they should take a one day class on VHF radio.

The RYA offers these classes and they have a very good book on VHF radio as well as HF Marine SSB. If you want to cruise in EU waters then it would be prudent to follow their rules. I have also found that RYA Sailing instruction to be highly professional.

Posted by: rav555 | January 26, 2019 11:17 AM    Report this comment

I got this done for my handheld before going to Australia. Easy to do, but not terribly cheap. Now I have a pocketable radio with a shiny red button that summons boats and helicopters. Very very cool. Hope I never use it.

Posted by: jeffspc88mx | January 26, 2019 11:06 AM    Report this comment

What an informative article. It told me information that I was not even aware of and also told where to go to make sure we are a little bit safer at sea. I also had no idea that your vh radio could be used as a cell phone like that. Thank You

Posted by: oharmison | January 26, 2019 9:29 AM    Report this comment

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