Vessel Traffic Services – 64 years young



Captain Terry Hughes, FNI FRIN, Founder, International Maritime Consultancy


Development of Vessel Traffic Services

In February 1948, the first port control radar was installed at the entrance to the Isle of Man's harbour. However, it was probably the Port of Liverpool which pioneered European Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) when in the same year they set up a radar/radio station, in order to facilitate the boarding of pilots from their cutter.

In 1951, Long Beach in California established a similar system to facilitate their port operations. Other major ports in Europe quickly followed. At this time, commercial radar was comparatively new, which made it possible under almost all weather conditions to observe vessel traffic from the shore. In combination with VHF radio, a traffic surveillance system was achieved and real-time information exchange between the shore and ships became possible.


In 1968, Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO), as it was then called, published Resolution A.158 – Radio Advisory Services. This recommended that governments consider setting up such services in ports; to warrant it by the importance and nature of traffic, particularly in oil terminals and ports where noxious or hazardous cargoes are loaded and unloaded. It was also recommended that masters be instructed that, to improve safety, it would be best for them to notify appropriate authorities of expected times of arrival as early as possible. In 1985 International Maritime Organization (IMO) published Resolution A.578(14) – Guidelines for VTS. This resolution recognised that the level of safety and efficiency in the movement of maritime traffic within a VTS service area is dependent upon close cooperation between those operating the VTS and participating vessels. It also recognised the use of differing VTS procedures may cause confusion to masters of vessels moving from one VTS service area to another.

In 1997, the IMO published an updated Resolution A.857 (20), which is still in force today. This latest publication includes two important annexes, namely, Guidelines and Criteria for VTS and Guidelines on Recruitment, Qualifications and Training of VTS Operators. Experience gained over the last 15 years both in operational technology and training means that this resolution is now in need of updating.

Whilst IMO have published various resolutions, including Guidelines on VTS, it is the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) Convention, which is the most important with respect to VTS. The first version was adopted in 1914, two years after the Titanic disaster.

In 2000 amendments to Chapter V were adopted and included Regulation 11, Ship Reporting Systems and Regulation 12, Vessel Traffic Services, some 32 years after the original Resolution A.158. Regulation 12 consists of five paragraphs, one of which states: “Contracting Governments planning and implementing VTS shall, wherever possible, follow the guidelines developed by the Organization.” The word ‘guidelines’ points to Resolution A.857(20). This is extremely important as it now places VTS training and qualifications firmly in the forefront of maritime legislation.

Training and qualifications

In 1998 International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities (IALA) published Recommendation V103 on Standards for Training and Certification of VTS Personnel. This was followed by a series of model courses based on a similar format to Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW). In May 2000 the IMO Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) published Circular 952, which invited Member Governments to bring the IALA recommendation and model courses to the attention of their VTS authorities and training organisations, when considering the training and certification of VTS personnel.

The IALA VTS Committee has worked very hard to ensure that the building blocks are in place so that VTS personnel are provided with the highest standards of training and certification. However, it is up to the various training organisations to use the internationally recognised IALA model courses for VTS training. Keeping in line with the STCW format, the training organisations themselves should be accredited and have the  IALA V103 courses approved by their competent authority. IALA has published Guideline 1014 – Accreditation and Approval Process, which will hopefully guide the various authorities as to how best to achieve both accreditation and approval for VTS training.

Unfortunately, at the moment VTS training is not mandatory. Whilst many ports do have V103 qualified operators, there are others that do not. In fact not all training organisations have accreditation or even approval for VTS training. This means that we could have a situation whereby a vessel entering a port with all the crew trained and qualified according to SOLAS and STCW are being regulated by an authority, which employs personnel to assist with the vessel's navigation and safe passage within the area of responsibility but do not hold the internationally recognised IALA V103 qualifications.

One of the major problems is the lack of worldwide expertise in training VTS personnel and there are many developing countries in desperate need of assistance. The three main areas of training are classroom theory and practice, simulation and on the job training. The cost of training abroad can be very high and may not always be carried out at accredited/approved training organisations. Simulators are not cheap either but manufacturers should be able to provide cost effective simulators, which could be used for multipurpose training. It is important that the instructors used for VTS training have both having teaching experience and good background knowledge of VTS operations. The STCW Manila amendments now include VTS awareness and communications procedures as part of the deck officer training curriculum. This is only a start as VTS operational procedures should be a normal part of both mandatory classroom and simulator training.


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