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New Sailing App Calls For Note of Caution

14th August 2013
New Sailing App Calls For Note of Caution

In our latest Have Your Say contribution, Gary Delaney of Global Position Intelligence (GPI) expresses his concerns about the new ISA sailing app and how it might encourage boat users to be less prepared on the water

With regard to the recent marketing for the new ISA SafeTrx smartphone app, I wish to add a note of caution to those who might consider using it. 

Whilst it may well be very useful as a passage plan filing tool, the element of the app which concerns itself with tracking a vessel should NOT be relied upon as it depends solely on mobile phone coverage. 

It is widely known that the mobile phone coverage in Irish coastal and nearshore waters is less than reliable (and can deteriorate with the weather) and international maritime safety organisations routinely warn against reliance on mobile phones for communications in those areas.

I am sure that the Irish Coast Guard had originally intended that warnings would be associated with the marketing of the app for this purpose, but the nature of apps and social media is such that they are normally not used for promoting safety critical solutions, and therefore warnings may be getting lost in the promulgation. 

In short, neither smartphones nor the GSM/GPRS network that supports them are reliable for any aspect of maritime safety, and there are more suitable technologies already available for the purpose.

As international maritime safety organisations do not normally recommend the use of mobile phone technology for any aspect of marine safety, the Irish Coast Guard must have significant justifications for deviating from this long established policy, and it would be useful if these were stated. 

Similarly, it would also be useful to know if this initiative is being supported by the Irish Marine Safety Working Group in the Department of Transport, which has responsibility in this area.

It is well recognised that in the event of a maritime emergency, lifesaving agencies need to know the current position of the casualty as quickly as possible. An assessment of available technologies reveals that only normally approved safety communications devices, such as marine VHF, AIS, EPIRBs, PLBs, ELT, etc can come near guaranteeing that requirement. 

These devices have gone through years of global development, advancement, testing and approvals for the purpose in a marine environment and, therefore, only these can be relied upon to minimise the 'search' element of the 'search and rescue' effort – and thereby give casualties the best chance of survival.

Whilst the ISA SafeTrx app may be aimed at those who under current legislation are not required to carry any of the approved devices, I feel that life saving agencies are better served by raising awareness about what is approved and encouraging water users to use them voluntarily anyhow, rather than confusing the message by emphasising the 'tracking' element of the app. 

The fact that the app is free (airtime costs excluded), and the approved technologies are not (though very affordable, especially when personal safety is the prize), further confuses the message.

And the RNLI, who have been rescuing people on our coastline for hundreds of years, are very clear that marine VHF is to be preferred over mobile phones in all cases (their website confirms this). 

There has been much poorly informed comment in popular media about the SafeTrx app. One comment alleges that the app is particularly suited to "weekend and leisure crews who may prefer more accessible and less sophisticated communication equipment". 

But it is not about what is 'preferred', and this and other similar comments are misleading and potentially dangerous, The Irish Coast Guard and the Irish Sailing Association should consider taking action to correct them and ensure suitable warnings are publicly communicated wherever the app is being promoted.

To the best of my knowledge, the Irish Coast Guard has no role in the development, testing or approval of marine safety equipment. Therefore, whatever investment or effort has gone into supporting this app may well have been better spent serving the coastguard's role of raising public awareness around the availability and use of approved marine safety equipment, including the radio and communications devices that are available for use in Irish waters – most likely in co-operation with its other partner agencies in the Irish Marine Safety Working Group.

For my own part, I strongly suggest that water users in coastal areas would use common sense when it comes to their personal safety by investing in approved technologies whether they have to or not and get themselves properly trained to use them. 

If using the SafeTrx App, then do so with considerable caution – only as an addition to the approved devices, and then primarily just for filing passage plans.

Published in Your Say
MacDara Conroy

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MacDara Conroy

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MacDara Conroy is a contributor covering all things on the water, from boating and wildlife to science and business

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