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Safety At Sea - Magazine - Features

07 Jan 2010

Situational awareness is a watchkeeper’s best tool for increasing vessel safety and improving bridge operations, but information overload can compromise it. Anthony Palmiotti outlines a process to help seafarers avoid disaster

Navigation and bridge: Watchkeeping in three steps



Situational awareness is a watchkeeper’s best tool for increasing vessel safety and improving bridge operations, but information overload can compromise it. Anthony Palmiotti outlines a process to help seafarers avoid disaster



Much has been discussed, written, blogged and codified concerning situational awareness for mariners. Seafarers spend hours learning the use of new and ever more sophisticated equipment, all of which is designed to give the watchkeeper more (and hopefully better) information. With the click of a button, the name, course, speed and even destination of a nearby vessel is at one’s fingertips. At the same time, thanks to electronic charts and GPS, it’s just a matter of keeping the little icon indicating your own ship away from everything else. On the surface, it appears that the hardest part of collision avoidance and navigation is figuring out how to configure the computer screen.

Back in the 1980s, the radar was the ultimate collision avoidance tool and a grease pencil and speed stick gave an officer all the ARPA-type information he needed. Technology and integrated bridge systems have multiplied the amount of information available to a watchkeeper. Add to that the various alarms from the unattended engine room, plus attendant communication duties, and it’s questionable whether watchkeeping operations are more effective today.

Many of the principles of bridge resource management (BRM) and maritime training practices have come from the airline industry. Aviation introduced simulators, and bridge management has been derived from cockpit management (see SASI Dec 2009 for details). Given this connection, it is interesting to note that one study found that 26.6% of all aviation accidents occurred in an environment where poor decision-making occurred even though there was adequate information available to aid situational awareness.

A maritime example of information being available but not being processed correctly can be found in the Transportation Safety Board of Canada report of the 1997 grounding of Raven Arrow, which states: “the pilot was apparently unable to process all the navigational cues and information available to him”. As a result, the vessel ran aground. The well-publicised fact that human error is responsible for more than 80% of all accidents at sea adds emphasis to the importance of information processing.

Among the many definitions of situational awareness is this simple one: knowing what is going on around you. However, this basic definition does not explain the 26.6% of accidents where the information needed to avoid an accident was available, but the decision-making was incorrect. Knowing what is going on around you is only the first step in responding appropriately and making the right decision. Situational awareness is a function of perception versus reality and demands the ability to gather and interpret information and then project a decision. This is particularly difficult in the constantly changing maritime operating environment.

In a bridge watchkeeping situation there are usually three choices once the data is gathered and digested: do nothing (maintain course and speed); take action to avoid a collision or dangerous situation; or call for help.

Before the officer of the watch calls for help, there is a three-step process that they need to go through. The process can be considered a mental decision-support system, much like that required for emergency response. Most experienced mates or masters do this without really thinking about it; it’s an ingrained process based on years of working at sea. 


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