"Digital Selective Calling" or "DSC" is part of the internationally adopted Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS). By law, DSC functions are required in all newly manufactured VHF radios sold in the United States. For Medium Frequency / High Frequency - Single Sideband (MF / HF-SSB), DSC is mandated for compulsory equipped vessels and is available for non-compulsory vessels.
The benefits of Digital Selective Calling are many due to its use of digital data rather than voice modulation; increased range, accuracy of data sent, and probably the most important it enhances safety by allowing distress alerts to be initiated rapidly when needed. DSC allows preformatted automated distress alerts to be sent much like today's EPIRB's (without the satellites.) Once activated, DSC radios will continue to send this distress alert until acknowledged or you cancel the alert yourself.
Routine traffic and public correspondence also benefits from DSC. Think of it as you do your home phone or cell phone where you can direct communications to specific vessels or shore stations and only they will receive the call alert.
In the U.S., it all starts with your request for a FCC Ship Station license or when needed, a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number. You can get your MMSI number from various organizations here in the U.S. including: Boat US, the Power Squadron, Sea Tow, Shine Micro, and the Federal Communications Commission. Keep in mind that MMSI numbers offered by any of the above organizations other than the FCC are only registered in a national database and provide no beneifit once outside of U.S. waters.
In Australia you would apply through the AMSA, in Bermuda MMSI numbers are provided by the Department of Telecommunications, in Canada you would apply through Industry Canada, New Zealand contact Radio Spectrum Management, and in the U. K. contact Ofcom.
Once you have received your MMSI number, you must enter it into your DSC equipped radio. Each radio's operations manual will have instructions how to enter the number. Once this is done your radio will have full Digital Selective Calling capabilities. If you elect not to apply for and/or enter a MMSI number into your marine radio, only the DSC features will not be functional. However, your radio will be completely functional in all other respects.
DSC "distress alerts", are a simple "push of a button" transmissions when your marine radio is properly set up.
When you push the "Distress Button" on your DSC equipped radio, a preformatted distress alert is transmitted. Your MMSI number is encoded in the message allowing rescue agencies to obtain valuable information about you and your vessel. If your radio is properly installed and coupled to a GPS unit, your vessel's current position and the current UTC (Zulu) time is also automatically sent.
When a DSC distress alert is sent, it will repeat itself every 3½ to 4½ minutes until it has been acknowledged or you cancel the transmission yourself.
Once a DSC alert acknowledgement is received or in the unlikely event that no acknowledgement is received within a few minutes, you should shift to the appropriate distress frequency. For VHF, you would switch to channel 16 (156.800 MHz); in the case of MF-SSB you would switch to 2182.0 kHz, for HF-SSB you would want to change to the voice distress frequency in the band that you transmitted the alert on. Some radios will automatically make this frequency change for you.
If you happen to receive a DSC Distress Alert, you should take the following actions:
On most marine radios, the DSC Distress Alarm Signal consists of the continuous alternate transmission of two audio tones of different pitch for a period of at least thirty seconds but not to exceed one minute. The sound of this tone is similar to that used by some ambulances.
Below are flow diagrams outlining the action that should be taken by vessels receiving a DSC Distress Alert.
The above flow diagrams are available for download for either VHF/MF DSC or HF DSC.
VHF/MF DSC Distress Alert Flow Diagram
HF DSC Distress Alert Flow Diagram
On a personal note, when I hear a DSC Alert or any other type of Distress call, during the 5 minutes that I am waiting, I will plot the position of the vessel in distress. If the vessel is within (2) hours of my position I will immediately lay in a course to their position. If I hear someone closer is responding, I will resume my original course unless it is determined additional assistance is needed.
When the excrement has hit the fan aboard your boat, having your Digital Selective Calling radio set up properly is VITAL!
The USCG reports that of all VHF DSC distress alerts received by them:
The USCG cannot effectively respond to distress alerts in the above cases.
Because of this and (I am Guessing Here) the extraordinary cost of launching SAR efforts, that these efforts may normally be suspended in these cases when:
I mean think about it. The cost of a USCG rescue helicopter is in the neighborhood of $8500.00 per hour and that is for their smallest one, the MH-65 Dolphin, to operate.
For more information concerning this Safety Alert, see USCG Alert 04-11.
The following frequencies are used for Digital Selective Calling - Distress, Urgency, and Safety alerts:
DSC Distress Alert & Associated Voice Distress Frequencies
|DSC Distress, Urgency, & Safety Frequency||Associated Voice Frequency|
|Channel 70 (156.525 MHz)||Channel 16 (156.800 MHz)|
|2187.5 kHz||2182.0 kHz|
|4207.5 kHz||4125.0 kHz|
|6312.0 kHz||6215.0 kHz|
|8414.5 kHz||8291.0 kHz|
|12577.0 kHz||12290.0 kHz|
|16804.5 kHz||16420.0 kHz|
DSC Distress Alert Frequency Table - Download
IMPORTANT!: Effective 01 August 2013 the USCG discontinued its radio guard of the international distress frequency 2182.0 kHz (voice) and 2187.5 kHz (DSC.)
Urgency and Safety alerts are generally menu driven selections from the front panel of the DSC radio. Do Not Use The Distress Alert Button! Once an urgency or safety alert has been transmitted they are handled in much the same manner as distress alerts. You would switch to the appropriate voice frequency and send your traffic.
Digital Selective Calling is also encouraged for routine communications use. Like the urgency and safety alerts, routine traffic alerts are menu driven and sent from the front panel. For VHF use, Channel 70 for all DSC alerts including those for routine traffic.
For MF / HF, the following table describes the calling frequencies available for authorized ship and coast stations for routine traffic alerts. There are three series of paired frequencies. One series is for worldwide or international use; the other two series are for regional use.
Stations should initiate routine traffic alerts on the appropriate regional frequency depending upon the location of the "station called" and propagation conditions. Acknowledgement is made on the paired frequency.
|DSC Routine Ship to Shore Alert and Acknowledgements|
|¹2177.0 kHz is also available to ship stations as a simplex frequency for intership calling and acknowledgement of such calls only.|
|International||Atlantic Ocean / Gulf of Mexico / Caribbean Sea||All Other Areas|
|Ship TX||Ship RX||Ship TX||Ship RX||Ship TX||Ship RX|
|458.5 kHz||455.5 kHz||*********||*********||*********||*********|
|2189.5 kHz||2177.0¹ kHz||*********||*********||*********||*********|
|4208.0 kHz||4219.5 kHz||4208.5 kHz||4220.0 kHz||4209.0 kHz||4220.5 kHz|
|6312.5 kHz||6331.0 kHz||6313.0 kHz||6331.5 kHz||6313.5 kHz||6332.0 kHz|
|8415.0 kHz||8436.5 kHz||8415.5 kHz||8437.0 kHz||8416.0 kHz||8437.5 kHz|
|12577.5 kHz||12657.0 kHz||12578.0 kHz||12657.5 kHz||12578.5 kHz||12658.0 kHz|
|16805.0 kHz||16903.0 kHz||16805.5 kHz||16903.5 kHz||16806.0 kHz||16904.0 kHz|
|18898.5 kHz||19703.5 kHz||18899.0 kHz||19704.0 kHz||18899.5 kHz||19704.5 kHz|
|22374.5 kHz||22444.0 kHz||22375.0 kHz||22444.5 kHz||22375.5 kHz||22445.0 kHz|
|25208.5 kHz||26121.0 kHz||25209.0 kHz||26121.5 kHz||25209.5 kHz||26122.0 kHz|
|156.525 MHz||156.525 MHz||*********||*********||*********||*********|
DSC Routine Traffic Frequency Table - Download
Because the frequencies shown in the table above are duplex their use is for ship to coast or coast to ship routine DSC calling.
During normal working hours, all public coast stations capable of DSC operations must monitor the worldwide and regional frequencies appropriate for their location. The specific frequencies to be monitored will vary with propagation conditions.
For ship to ship routine calling, 2177.01 kHz Simplex, is the only frequency specified for intership calling and acknowledgement. This does not mean this is the only frequency available to you for routine DSC calls, it simply means that no other standard set of frequencies have been set aside for routine ship to ship DSC calls.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) however, suggests that the International Ship Transmit frequencies listed below can be used on a simplex basis for ship to ship routine alerts and acknowledgements. Table Below.
|DSC Routine Ship to Ship Traffic Alert and Acknowledgements|
|¹156.800 MHz When using VHF Channel 16 for routine DSC Alerts and Acknowledgements, DO NOT interfer with any ongoing Distress Traffic.|
|Ship TX||Ship RX|
|156.800 MHz (Channel 16)¹||156.800 MHz (Channel 16)¹|
|6312.5 kHz||6312.5 kHz|
|8415.0 kHz||8415.0 kHz|
|12577.5 kHz||12577.5 kHz|
|16805.0 kHz||16805.0 kHz|
|18898.5 kHz||18898.5 kHz|
|22374.5 kHz||22374.5 kHz|
|25208.5 kHz||25208.5 kHz|
• MMSI numbers issued by Boat US, the United States Power Squadron, Sea Tow, and Shine Micro are valid only for ship stations that do not have FCC-issued ship station licenses. These MMSI numbers are maintained in the U.S. National Database only and are not available internationally.
• If you are sailing foreign or you decide to license your onboard radio station, you should apply to the FCC for your MMSI, it will then be placed into the International database and the information is then made available to search and rescue organizations worldwide.
• Remember, consider your future plans and whether they include sailing foreign. Don’t forget that our cousins to the north may be our friends and allies, but in the eyes of the FCC, Canada is still a different sovereign country.
• Dangers associated with entering incomplete MMSI information. See the US Coast Guard Safety Alert.
• Until you have entered your MMSI number into your radio, all of the Digital Selective Calling features will be inoperable.
• Even without a MMSI number entered, your DSC radio will remain fully functional for voice communications.
• Many radios only allow a limited number attempts to enter a MMSI number. Once you have exceeded that allowance the radio typically has to be sent back to the manufacturer or to a manufacturer’s certified repair facility to have the MMSI memory slot cleared.
• If you are considering buying a used DSC radio keep in mind what additional costs may be involved if the previous owner has entered their MMSI into the radio.
• Voice transmissions are prohibited on Digital Selective Calling alert frequencies.
• IF your DSC radio does not have a GPS built in, it is strongly recommended that they be connected to the vessel's Global Positioning System (GPS).