by David Ring Jr.
Merchant Marine Radio Officer
During the design of the GMDSS system, one of the prime objections of the various Radio Officers Groups was the elimination the Radio Officer position and Coastal Marine Stations because that would also eliminate "record communications". Record communications are communications such as telegrams, registered or certified mail. These types of communications have signed receipts.
Before GMDSS this is how it worked:
Agent SCREWSHIPS in New York sends a telegram to the Master on the bulker SCREWLOOSE who is being advised that he ship is to have all holds ready for 0800 loading or the contract will be lost. The Agent knows that the ship is listening to WKM West Haven, CT Radio.
This message was sent via Western Union Telex (WU Infomaster) from the agent's telex to Western Union. COPY ONE.
Western Union - keeps a copy of this telegram showing the time and date it received it, and the time and date it was sent to WESTHAVENRADIO. COPY TWO.
West Haven Radio/WKM receives this telegram on their Western Union (Domestic) (WUD) telex. This is another copy of the telegram. COPY THREE.
West Haven Radio puts the call sign of the SCREWLOOSE on its traffic list, and since the ship is due into New York in three days, she will be in range on 500 kHz.
SCREWLOOSE answers on 500 kHz and goes to the working frequency and clears traffic.
The Radio Officer copies this message with an original and two copies. COPY FOUR, FIVE AND SIX.
The original goes to the addressee, the first copy goes to the radio station of the ship's accounting agency, and the last copy goes to the ship's radio files. Additionally on some ships, an additional copy of each telegram to and from the ship was copied to the Master. The Master under USA laws has the right to know of all communications to and from the ship and to censor it if he wishes.
Back at the radio station that handled the message, the operator "services" or signs the message giving the time, date, frequencies used and the call sign of the ship that took the message. (During times of equipment problems ships could either get a free relay (QSP) or a Marine Relay (RM) of messages - cost $0.08 per word from the station through a near by ship.) The operator signs the message, and puts it into the "Accounting Bin" where it is charged as sent. Aboard the ship, strict procedure is to have all messages signed for. This was done for all Full Telegram service (they were marked P) but for Master's telegrams (prefix MSG) they were usually just given to the master.
Of course, a prudent Radio Officer might see the need of signing the TTT message from the ship with iceberg sightings, or for a certain type of message from the company or agent. Of course, this loose arrangement with the master's messages not being signed were acknowledged by the Master sending an acknowledgment telegram.
Additionally many of these "urgent" telegrams were sent with the service prefix of "PC" which is "Pass Confirmation" which is a paid service advice in which the radio station that sent the message to the ship, sends a telegram back to the agent, giving the reference message number, date and time of the telegram sent, then the time, date on which the operator on the ship sent his QSL (or acknowledgment of reception) of the message.
Such a PC message might look like this:
ZCZC S2343 WESTHAVENRADIO 26 2349
REF Z2343 26 2219 SCREWLOOSE/BYHP DELIVERED 26/2338Z
In this case there would be copies of the delivery notice at the Radio Station, Western Union and finally the delivered copy at the Agent. Thus and auditing trail was created for anyone wishing to inspect it. This is very similar to registered mail. It is called "RECORD COMMUNICATIONS". As far as Telex or Telephone is concerned. I believe that the only thing that can be proven is that a Telex connection or telephone connection was made. It would be impossible to prove that any "communications" took place. Masters should note carefully - Telex's can be manufactured.
A punched tape - or memory chips - can be filled with the message and answerbacks of the ship and sending telex. This could be used to hang a Captain. If the remote terminal of the ship was called by telex and the line kept open for about a minute, and then just cut off, this message could have been said to have been "sent". Telex accounting (bill) records would show a connection via Inmarsat to the ship at a certain time and length. This is an excellent way to hang someone. This couldn't be done with Telegrams because not only the "time" is recorded but the content as well.
The biggest loss to seamen is the fact that SOS were record communications. When an SOS was sent, ALL Radio Officers had to stay on watch and keep a COMPLETE log of every event on 500 kHz, including the SOS messages, the names and call signs of the ships and shore stations that replied.
During the SOS I was involved in - Holland-America Lines "ms Prinsendam" in 1980, the F.C.C. told me that they had received 350 log books containing the complete distress details. With that type of "RECORD COMMUNICATIONS" it would be impossible to change and distort what happened.
After the SOS from the Prinsendam, the U.S. Coast Guard and F.C.C. tried to get copies of details of the telexes sent by the Prisendam to Comsat's Washington, DC operations center. Comsat (the USA provider of Inmarsat) refused to give them this, stating that it was "privileged information".
By law - any SOS message is not subject to any provisions of secrecy under the USA Communications Act or International Agreements. But this does NOT apply to an SOS sent by telex or telephone.