Maritime Safety Center Keeps Sailors Safe
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 25, 2001 When it comes to keeping mariners safe on the high seas, the world's coastlines or any other large body of water, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency has a new way of doing business.
"We've brought all of NIMA's hydrographic resources and assets into one center -- the Maritime Safety and Information Center," said center director Steve C. Hall. He and his staff are responsible for all of NIMA's maritime safety and hydrographic activities. They collect, evaluate and compile worldwide marine navigational data for early warning radio and satellite broadcasts, printed publications and electronic access.
Center support includes producing and maintaining the NIMA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration portfolios of nautical charts of the world and digital nautical charts. The center handles safety messages through the Worldwide Navigational Warning Service, an essential part of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, Hall said.
"We host light lists produced by the Coast Guard that give you all the floating and fixed navigation aids around the world," he said. The Coast Guard and NIMA lists cover about 75,000 lights and other aids to navigation. All are on the NIMA Web site at www.nima.mil.
NIMA, a member of the International Hydrographic Organization, also works closely with NATO countries and other nations that have hydrographic offices. Nautical charts are built with data from more than 70 nations.
"In the commercial world, you can be arrested if you attempt to enter or leave a port without up-to-date and accurate charts and publications," Hall noted. "The fine for a civilian ship in the United States is around $27,000 per day. This is an international and domestic law to protect the environment, humans and lives and property."
Keeping nautical charts up-to-date is a never-ending task. "That's because it's a fluid world that's continually changing -- buoys move, traffic separation schemes change," he said. "We produce thousands and thousands of changes to the worldwide chart portfolio every week."
All the information is printed in the U.S. Notice to Mariners, published every Saturday since 1869. Its printing priority at the Government Printing Office is second only to the Congressional Record.
"We've never missed a publication date," Hall noted. "A summary of the data is available free on the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week, anywhere in the world."
NIMA maintains about 4,200 printed charts for the commercial community and about 1,000 for military use only. The National Ocean Service has about 900. They're delivered a variety of ways, from wall-sized paper charts to sets of 29 CD-ROMs.
"It's an awful lot of work by an awful lot of people every day to get this digital portfolio up to date and keep it that way," Hall said. The center has 340 employees and many contractors.
The center's primary customers are the Navy and other U.S. military operators. But the center supports all mariners, including small boaters who want to sail beyond the waters of the United States.
NIMA charts waters non-U.S. waters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Ocean Service charts U.S. waters, but NIMA, the National Ocean Service and the Coast Guard jointly produce the Notice to Mariners that keeps the charts current.
NIMA's "Sailing Directions" is like a Cook's tours of a coastline, Hall noted. "It tells you what to expect when you're approaching a port or harbor or sailing along a coast," he said. "This includes landmarks, areas of interest, areas to avoid and rules and regulations of every country in the world."
National Ocean Service produces a similar publication, "Coast Pilots," but it's NIMA that publishes the weekly corrections for it.
NIMA also works with the International Hydrographic Organization in maintaining the Worldwide Navigational Radio Warning Service. The service provides users important information at a moment's notice.
The agency provides timely and accurate long-range and coastal warning messages. Special warnings are provided to mariners concerning potential political or military hazards that may affect the safety of U.S. shipping.
Hall said piracy is still a big issue. Piracy, called "anti-shipping activities" these days, costs the world economy more than a billion dollars a year. The center sends messages to mariners alerting them to pirate attacks on merchant ships, commercial vessels, cabin cruisers and sailboats.
"Such things are common in the Singapore straits, Caribbean and the western coast of Africa," Hall noted. "This type of information is available on the Maritime Safety Information Center Web site through the NIMA address, 126.96.36.199/nimahome.html.
Navy ships can defend themselves against pirates, he noted. Merchant ships and Navy auxiliaries generally can't, though, so they need to be made constantly aware of where they are and what they're doing, he said.
Coverage of the nautical world is divided into 16 areas. NIMA handles two and 14 other countries handle the rest. But, since Navy policy is not to be dependent on other countries for information sources, NIMA created its own warning system called hydrographic warnings Atlantic and hydrographic warnings Pacific.
"We provide the Navy worldwide coverage with satellite and high-frequency radio broadcasts," Hall said. "It's unclassified information on published schedules so any other countries can use it, and any individual ship can use it as they see fit.
One of his goals is to get rid of books and paper charts. "If you're Navy, you'll know how to get the key information you need off of our database," he said. "You'll go to your destination in complete safety and with complete confidence that the information came from a trusted provider."
That's a lofty goal, Hall said, because it means creating the largest nautical database maintenance environment in the world and giving users the tools they need to use it. He promised the Maritime Safety Information Center will "set the maritime world on its ear by the end of fiscal year 2002. Then we'll spin them around in FY 04."
The chief of naval operations is aiming for a paperless Navy, too, Hall noted. "He wants two complete battle groups operating in a paperless environment by end of fiscal year 2002, and he wants the entire Navy to go anywhere they want to go by the end of fiscal year 2004 without paper charts," he added.