When an airplane incident occurs, all the vital information surrounding the incident can be found in the black box, but have you ever wondered what is the case for ships? The black box of a ship is in the Voyage Data Recorder, more widely known as VDR. Under SOLAS, passenger ships and other vessels over 300 gt must carry voyage data recorders (VDRs) to assist in accident investigations.
What is a VDR?
VDR is a complete system, part of the ship bridge equipment, intended to continuously record vital data onboard, which can then be used for identifying and reconstructing any voyage details during a maritime accident investigation. This data is stored in a secure and retrievable form and can provide vital details regarding the ship’s position and movement, as well as crew command of a ship in the moments proceeding an incident. Namely, the VDR contains information regarding:
- the date, time, and ship’s position,
- the ship’s speed, heading,
- bridge audio and radio audio
- radar and ECDIS data,
- Echo sounder
- Main alarms
- rudder order and response,
- hull opening status,
- watertight and fire door status,
- hull stresses,
- wind speed and direction.
Why is a VDR important?
Human memory is biased and dynamic, while the moments surrounding an incident are typically affected by confusion and disarray. This means that any crew statements during post-incident investigations may reflect the person’s impression of what happened, rather than what actually happened. This is why the recording of a factual version of events is required for investigators to determine the exact circumstances that led up to the incident. And this is what a VDR serves onboard.
In the same way that the black boxes function on aircraft, VDRs enable accident investigators to review procedures and actions in the moments leading to a maritime incident and help them to identify probable causes. For example, a VDR can provide:
- A timeline of the incident.
- VHF communications.
- Bridge discussions.
Except for its vital contribution to incident investigations, a VDR can also help with preventive maintenance, heavy weather damage analysis, and performance efficiency monitoring, as well as crew training. For instance, VDR data can be used in drills and exercises for the bridge team to identify best practices employed onboard that are worthy of replication.
The VDR regulatory requirements
Adopted in 2000 and put into force on 1 July 2002, the regulatory requirements for a VDR to be carried onboard are included in Regulation 20 (Safety of Navigation) of SOLAS 1974, Chapter V and cover the following ship types:
- all passenger ships constructed on or after 1 July 2002;
- ships other than passenger ships of 3000 gross tonnage and upwards constructed on or after 1 July 2002;
- ro-ro passenger ships constructed before 1 July 2002 not later than the first survey on or after 1 July 2002; and
- passenger ships other than ro-ro passenger ships constructed before 1 July 2002 not later than 1 January 2004.
The MSC 79 in December 2004 adopted amendments to Regulation 20 of SOLAS chapter V on a phased-in carriage requirement for a shipborne simplified voyage data recorder (S-VDR). The amendment entered into force on 1 July 2006. The regulation requires a VDR, which may be an S-VDR, to be fitted on existing cargo ships of 3,000 gt and upwards, phasing in the requirement for cargo ships of 20,000 gt and upwards first, to be followed by cargo ships of 3,000 gt and upwards.
According to the IMO, administrations may exempt ships, other than ro-ro passenger ships, constructed before 1 July 2002, from being fitted with a VDR, if it can be demonstrated that interfacing a VDR with the existing equipment on the ship is unreasonable and impracticable. The S-VDR is more cost-effective but is not required to store the same level of detailed data as a standard VDR.
Is VDR always effective?
The VDR is not a stand-alone system preserving evidence on its own, but it requires proper crew training to serve its purposes. For example, the VDR will not be useful unless the crew presses the save button after an incident to ensure that the evidence of the events is preserved. It is also noted that the voice recording system on the VDR is covering a period of the last 12 hours. This means that, in case of a ship grounding, for example, the bridge team must save the VDR recordings as soon as possible after the incident.
So, what must the crew know and be able to do with the VDR during an incident? The West P&I Club advises that the VDR training should enable the crew to know:
- How to save a recording manually.
- How long the overwrite period is.
- How many saves are available in case of a long incident enabling the crew to save each period.
- The onboard maintenance requirements between servicing.
- The fault indicators and their meanings.
- Common issues and possible faults with VDRs.
Reviewing VDR policy
Based on the above, operators are advised to consider the following points when reviewing their VDR policy:
- Initiate regular checks on VDR operation
- Upgrade systems with additional ports/sensors
- Regularly assess downloaded information so that best practices are identified
- Use these best practices to ensure that the bridge team is familiar with VDR operation
- Extend recording time beyond minimum 12 hours
- Transfer data to central, remote, location so that further analysis can be undertaken.
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