SEAFARERS CLAIM CONNECTIVITY RIGHTS
President, Inmarsat Maritime
Anxieties and restrictions arising from COVID-19 have added new connectivity imperatives when it comes to crew welfare.
While COVID-19 has made global shipping’s role in delivering vital supplies abundantly clear, new stressors have emerged for those working at sea, including unsought tour extensions, denial of medical assistance ashore and day-to-day confinement with untested colleagues.
The toll is measurable in the fatigue that can undermine operational safety, but the impact on mental well-being is also strong, given the stresses of extended confinement onboard and worries about the welfare of those left at home.
Understandably, one outcome of coronavirus has been a marked increase in demand for seafarer connectivity. Furthermore, while the focus for development in ship-to-shore communications over recent years has been on data and digitalisation, the pandemic has reinforced the power of the voice call to cut through to sustain well-being in difficult times.
Given Inmarsat’s position as the leading provider of maritime VSAT services at sea, it is hardly surprising that we have been alert to the direct connection between coronavirus and surging demand for crew calling. In fact, since the virus first became widespread in Asia we have been working across the company and with partners to keep seafarers connected.
As early as February, Inmarsat responded by offering free additional call time for existing ChatCard voice service users, which seafarers call upon for around 600,000 minutes every month.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded, we have consulted with increasing frequency with partners at ISWAN, Sailors’ Society, Seafarers UK, Mission to Seafarers and Apostleship of the Sea, going on to develop a formal strategy to help seafarers stay connected without the burden of additional financial anxiety. In April, Inmarsat launched a 50% discount for crew voice calling services available for up to 40,000 ships. The discount was made available day and night to Inmarsat retail customers using FleetBroadband ChatCard voice services. The offer was also rolled through to wholesale partners via the Inmarsat Crew Calling (SQT) service and strongly recommend they pass on the full saving to crew.
Inmarsat also brought forward its launch of ChatCard services 8,500-plus Fleet Xpress-installed vessels, which already get unlimited high-speed data services. The service was also made available with an introductory discount.
In addition to continuing to offer free voice phone calls to the ISWAN SeafarerHelp service, crew can now also access the SeafarerHelp portal and live chat function via Inmarsat Crew Xpress, with its new onboard ‘Fleet Hotspot’ Wi-Fi portal. SeafarerHelp is ISWAN’s free, confidential, multilingual helpline, which offers support and assistance to seafarers and their families around the world, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Inmarsat continues to provide satellite phones to Port Chaplains in ports where a number of seafarers are stranded and have no access to the internet. In addition, we already provide medical advice and assistance free of charge to seafarers over its Fleet One, FleetBroadband and F77 services – anywhere, anytime and for anybody in need.
Where Fleet Xpress services are concerned, Inmarsat had already made telemedicine a priority as an area for service development. This has also been reflected in our response to Covid-19. Inmarsat launched a free of charge COVID-19 video call service in April, developed in conjunction with crew health management solutions provider Vikand and software platform provider FrontM.
The pro bono COVID-19 service is offered via the dedicated bandwidth service Fleet Connect and allows the Master or Chief Officer to connect by video call to a trained health professional, offering real-time advice on the coronavirus, its symptoms and what to look out for. The service is now live and available on over 150 vessels with a further 1,000+ vessels in the pipeline. While not a clinical care or emergency service, this is a vital resource to help seafarers navigate COVID-19 related, medical questions and ensure that their right to be informed is given due respect.
Even before COVID-19, Inmarsat had commissioned research to investigate consistent but anecdotal evidence that safety and crew welfare has been left behind in any dividend resulting from shipping’s digital revolution. A measure of the gap between operational and crew welfare investment commitments was established in the resulting ‘Welfare 2.0: How can the next generation of technology enable better crew safety, health and wellbeing at sea?’ report from consultancy Thetius.
The report shows that, while the maritime industry prides itself that seafarer safety and welfare is its highest priority, lower investment in the digitalised technologies benefiting worker welfare undermines the narrative. On average, start-ups focusing on issues like crew wellbeing, welfare and safety have been attracting only $2.25 million in investment since 2010. This compares to $9.6 million for ship performance technology start-ups.
As the crew repatriation crisis continues to dog shipping, it is fair to say that – even with the benefit of hindsight - few positives will be associated with coronavirus. However, perhaps one will be that the modern seafarer can hope for connectivity to be perceived as a right rather than a privilege, as those drafting the Manila amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention always intended.
Another may come about after the impact video-enabled telemedicine solutions are making on crew welfare is fully digested. Inmarsat’s belief is that solutions available and dedicated bandwidth via Fleet connect can make services such as regular/urgent doctor calls, 24/7 support hotlines, disease management, medical chest management and technical support part of crew management itself.
Hopefully, other positive lessons may follow. Technology cannot turn wilful corner-cutting into best practice, for example, but it can be used to embed policies and practices to enhance safety and wellbeing on board. Data-based tools supported by real-time connectivity can be used to test what does and doesn’t work for the ‘human element’.
Thetius, for example, suggests that fleet managers could usefully invest in digital seafarer monitoring and awareness tools specific to cardiovascular health. Again, the Welfare 2.0 report highlights how downloadable toolboxes that bridge the gap between seafarers and vessel safety are emerging. Scoutbase allows crew to offer feedback anonymously to highlight safety issues, for example, while Big Yellow Fish uses gaming techniques to reinforce desirable behaviours.
Meanwhile, the report highlights that coronavirus may have important consequences for seafarer training. The closure of education facilities led Wallem, Anglo-Eastern and Star Bulk to deploy a virtual training package from OMS-VR on dangerous activities, for example. It remains to be seen whether reopened training classrooms will be as full as they once were.