The System

The System

AMVER is the Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue (since 1958) international system, sponsored by the United States Coast Guard that uses commercial ships to rescue people in distress at sea globally. This computer-based and voluntary ship reporting system is used worldwide by search and rescue authorities.

The RMS “TITANIC” disaster in 1912 was one of the roots that led to the AMVER system. Other ships in the vicinity of the ill-fated passenger liner were unaware that it had hit an iceberg and was sinking. Those who had seen the distress flares from the stricken ship, later admitted they thought these were merely part of the maiden voyage celebrations!

However, the idea of a ship reporting system that could identify other ships in the area of a ship in distress, which could then be sent to its assistance, would not become a reality until the advent of computer technology. On April of 1958, the United States Coast Guard and commercial shipping representatives began discussions which led to the creation of the Atlantic Merchant Vessel Emergency Reporting (AMVER).

On July 18, 1958, the system began as an experiment, confined to waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, notorious for icebergs, fog and winter storms. That same year, the world’s oldest maritime radio station, Sweden’s Gothenburg Radio (SAG) which began operating in 1905, was the charter network participant. The basic focus of AMVER, of being a platform for mariner to help mariner without regard to nationality, continues to this day.

What is Amver

Within two years, AMVER database had grown to 5,000 vessels for an average of 770 ships “on plot” during a 24-hour period. The system began receiving sail plans, position, diversion and final (arrival) reports from all around the world. Even today, AMVER remains the only worldwide ship reporting system, though several similar “regional” systems have been created.

By 1962, Rescue Coordination Centers (RCCs) in England and Ireland were offered and began using, search and rescue (SAR) information from AMVER. By 1963, the system was plotting vessels on voyages worldwide. It soon became evident the more ships that participated in the system, the more effective it became. The system’s technology allowed international SAR agencies to locate a ship in distress, and determine how many, and what type, vessels were in the vicinity. In its first decade of service, AMVER information proved its worth in a variety of rescue and disaster scenarios.

In 1967 AMVER’s title was revised to read Automated Merchant VEssel Reporting program. AMVER’s second decade was marked by rapid technological progress. In the view of its operators and customers, proved its cost effectiveness as a SAR tool, free of any costs! In critical situations of a fire, flooding or medical emergency, SAR mission coordinators found AMVER invaluable in saving precious response time.

In 1967, Spanish radio stations Cadiz Radio (EAC), Vigo Radio (EAF), and Santa Cruz de Tenerife Radio (EAT) joined the AMVER network of coast radio stations. This increased the system’s coverage in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean regions.

By 1968, an additional 37 coast radio stations in the Pacific and 28 in the Atlantic were cooperating partners and the international effort to pursue and promote the safety of life at sea. As a service to the maritime community, frequencies of participating radio stations were published in the quarterly AMVER BULLETIN Magazine.

In 1971, the system was formally expanded worldwide as operations were shifted to Washington hosted on a Control Data Corporation mainframe computer at the Department of Transportation Systems Center. AMVER’s name required revision once again to reflect its global reach. But at this point, the AMVER acronym was so well known in the industry that the Coast Guard was reluctant to change it. Instead, the title was changed to the “Automated (computerized) Mutual-assistance (its basic premise) VEssel Rescue (its stated purpose) System.

AMVER took its place in the history of the 1960s and 1970s by playing an important role in the U.S. space program, as a part of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab Programs, providing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with a prospective maritime support plan in the event of a space flight emergency.

AMVER’s growing reputation pulled in new cooperating radio systems to the network. Twelve stations in the United Kingdom joined in 1978 and were directly responsible for a dramatic increase in the number of participating vessels. By 1980, System’s Center specialists were processing 2,000 reports every 24 hours.

In October of 1982, the first joint AMVER/satellite-alerting rescue occurred, using the experimental Argos and Cospas-Sarsat system. December of that year saw the U.S. Maritime Administration and the Coast Guard sign an agreement making participation into the System mandatory for U.S.-flag shipping, and suspending the requirement for the filing of reports to the overlapping USMER reporting system.

On the occasion of the concurrent 25th Anniversaries of AMVER and the International Maritime Organization in 1983, IMO published an open letter to all mariners, endorsing the value of the system. That year, participation grew by 16 percent.

The beginning of the 1990s saw the need for the entire software package of AMVER to be rewritten in UNIX/Windows technology to keep pace with the evolution of data processing. This new version would provide more capacity; mechanisms for recurrent routings and maintaining ships on station (e.g., research ships or fishing factory ships); graphic plot depiction; and parser capability, once again bringing AMVER current with the state-of-the-art.

Development of the “information highway” led to an analysis and evaluation of the potential benefits to AMVER of economies and efficiencies presented by global e-mail, the Internet, and customized communications/ship-management software packages. In conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and COMSAT (the U.S. signatory to Inmarsat) AMVER has assisted in the development of “compressed message” software to move report data at high speed and low cost to encourage more frequent, user-friendly reporting and thus increase plot accuracy at a time when many shipping companies are removing full-time radio officers from GMDSS-compliant ships.


Vessel Participation into the System

Any merchant vessel anywhere on the globe, on a voyage of greater than 24 hours duration, is welcome in the AMVER system and family. International participation is voluntary regardless of the vessel’s flag of registry, the nationality of the owner or company, or ports of call. Information voluntarily provided by vessels to the System is kept strictly confidential and is protected by the USCG. It will be released only for safety purposes.

The process to enroll a ship in the AMVER System is simple and easy and can be completed by the crew or operations department of the shipping company using the search and rescue questionnaire found on the AMVER website. Once a vessel is enrolled, the crew can immediately begin reporting following the instructions in the AMVER Ship Reporting Manual. Over 22,000 ships from hundreds of nations participate in AMVER. An average of 4,000 ships can be found on the AMVER plot each day and AMVER Center computer receives over 14,000 AMVER messages a day. Over 2,800 lives have been saved by AMVER-participating ships since 2000.

The success of AMVER is directly related to the extraordinary cooperation of ships, companies, SAR authorities, communication service providers and governments in supporting this international humanitarian program to protect life and property at sea.

There are four types of AMVER reports:

A. Sailing Plan – contains complete routing information and should be sent within a few hours before, upon, or within a few hours after departure.
B. Position Report – should be sent within 24 hours of departure and subsequently at least every 48 hours until arrival. The destination should also be included in Position Reports.
C. Deviation Report – should be sent as soon as any voyage information changes, which could affect AMVER’S ability to accurately predict the vessel’s position. Changes in course or speed due to weather, ice, change in destination, or any other deviations from the original Sailing Plan should be reported as soon as possible.
D. Arrival Report – should be sent upon arrival at the sea buoy or port of destination.
E. At the discretion of the vessel’s Master, reports may be sent more frequently than the above schedule, for example: during heavy weather or other adverse conditions. Complete, timely, and accurate reports are essential to keeping AMVER accurate and saving lives!

AMVER frequently receives messages, which should have been sent to other agencies. AMVER is an information system maintained to aid Rescue Coordination Centers (RCCs) in providing information for SAR incidents on the high seas. AMVER is NOT itself an RCC and it has NO facilities for coordination or providing assistance. AMVER is also NOT a general-purpose communications center.

Any vessel copying an SOS, MAYDAY or DSC Alert from a distressed vessel, or otherwise becoming aware that a distress incident has occurred, should contact the appropriate RCC, not AMVER. While AMVER will, of course, relay any message, which reports an emergency to the most appropriate USCG RCC (which may in turn have to relay the information to another RCC), it will cause a delay in the rescue response.


The Fundamentals of the System

AMVER’s success is tied directly to the number of merchant vessels regularly reporting their position. The more ships on plot, the greater the chance a ship will be identified near the position of distress.

Ships incur no additional obligation to respond than already exists under international law of the sea. Since AMVER identifies the best ship or ships to respond to a ship in distress, it releases other vessels to continue their voyage, saving fuel, time and payroll costs.

AMVER provides an additional measure of safety “insurance” by allowing rescue coordinators to compress the search area in the event a participating ship is unreported or overdue.
Participation into the System is free, voluntary, and open to merchant ships of all flags. Participation is generally limited to ships over 1000 gross tons, on a voyage of 24 hours or longer.

Recently, however, enrollment has been expanded to accommodate vessels outside the normal criteria, such as cruise ships, research vessels and fish processors.


Rescue Responses

Throughout the years, AMVER-participating ships have responded to various situations, such as:

  • an engine room explosion which seriously injured two crewmen aboard the M/V “CHRYISSI”;
  • a 17-year old Norwegian seaman injured in a fall aboard the M/V “GYLFE”;
  • a 10-year old boy experiencing sharp abdominal pains aboard the M/V “WOLVERINE STATE”;
  • an SOS reporting a fire aboard the Japanese M/V “SUWAHARU MARU”;
  • an expectant mother needing medical aid aboard the SS “DORIC”;
  • a Scottish seaman aboard the M/V “TYNE BRIDGE” whose life was saved when an AMVER SURPIC (the product of the computer – a “Surface Picture” or “SURPIC” – of an area of the ocean, indicating the AMVER-participating ships in the vicinity), provided a nearby passenger liner with a doctor on board;
  • a response to an engine room fire and flooding aboard the Dutch liner “PRINSENDAM”, carrying 519 passengers and crew. The tanker “WILLIAMSBURGH”, the M/V “GREATLAND”, the S/S “SOHIO INTREPID” and the S/S “PORTLAND” diverted. The 1,095-foot tanker arrived on scene in less than 7 hours, and ultimately took 175 survivors aboard from lifeboats, motor launches and life rafts. In recognition of AMVER’s role in the safe evacuation of everyone on board, the Government of Norway mandated that all its merchant ships participate in the System;
  • the recovery of thy famed French yachtswoman Florence Arthaud after her trimaran capsized during a solo race;
  • the rescue of explorer Tim Severin from the 60-foot bamboo sailing junk “HSU FU”, while reenacting the voyage of its Chinese namesake in the year 218 BC;
  • six AMVER-participating ships converged on the burning Italian cruise ship “ACHILLE LAURO” to recover 504 of the 976 survivors;
  • the largest single AMVER operation in its history, a flotilla of 41 ships from 18 nations searched over a six-day period to recover the only two survivors of the 31 crewmembers from the sunken bulk carrier “SALVADOR ALLENDE”;
  • the Chinese container ship “GAO HE” rescued a retired U.S. Navy captain from his stricken sailing vessel in the Pacific;

In the coming years, AMVER officials will turn their attention to negotiating with other nations and major national ship registries to solicit their endorsement and active encouragement of ships under their purview to enroll in the System, thus keeping it vibrant, vital and successful. AMVER will continue to work with commercial ship tracking companies to find new ways to integrate their clients vessel positions into the System. AMVER will also act as a resource for SAR authorities managing maritime incidents in the newly navigable waters of the Arctic.