Philippine Coast Guard seeks better tracking equipment after ferry disaster

MANILA : The Philippine Coast Guard have come under fire for allowing the ferry which sank last month to set sail as a typhoon was bearing down.

While they have come up with more stringent guidelines, they said they need better tracking and communication equipment to help respond to ships in distress.

The Philippine Coast Guard lamented that the recent tragedy that befell the MV Princess of the Stars could have been avoided, if only they had the technology that would allow them to quickly detect distress signals.

With a Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) in place, they said they could have prevented the loss of many lives.

Lt. Armand Balilo, a Philippine Coast Guard spokesman, said: “We want to do our job. Please equip us, give us personnel and the materials, the equipment, especially the GMDSS, so that we can have ‘eyes and ears’ to guide the vessel and track the vessel and respond properly to search and rescue incidents.”

In 1999, the Philippine Coast Guard had a chance to acquire the GMDSS, which will allow 19 coastguard stations throughout the country to track and communicate with each vessel at sea.

A building inside the coast guard compound was supposed to be the control room of the GMDSS project. However, the project did not materialise after the contractor abandoned it in 2000, due to a billing dispute.

Raymond Borres, Project Director, Communications Program Management Office, said: “Since then, we have been trying to coordinate with them for the mutual termination of the project.

“But the tricky word here is ‘mutual termination’ and because of some legal complexities and partly because two governments are involved, it’s been very difficult to find a situation where both parties will be satisfied by the mutual termination. That is why up to now we have not really resolved it.”

Only five coastguard stations have been equipped with GMDSS and the equipment has now deteriorated.

In this age of satellite communication, the Philippine Coast Guard still have to rely on the traditional two-way radio system to communicate to ships at sea.

In times of typhoons and adverse weather, they would not even be able to receive any distress signals. They would often have to resort to cellular phones just to communicate with vessels.

At the height of Typhoon Fengshen, cell sites near the area where the ferry sank were affected, and the coast guard were not able to alert the vessel that it was on the path of the typhoon.

Lt. Weniel Azcuna, Philippine Coast Guard, said: “Obviously when there’s bad weather, we can’t use the cellphone because there’s no signal when we’re far from the shore.

“That’s unlike GMDSS which is via satellite. If the project had pushed through, it would be better for responding to any kind of distress. In maritime safety, immediate response is the key.”

The Department of Transport and Communication is again pushing for the budget to upgrade the Philippine Coast Guard’s equipment to bring it in line with international maritime standards. – CNA/ms

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