History of the Amver System

The genesis of the Amver system ultimately finds its roots in the RMS TITANIC disaster in 1912. Ships passing within sight of the ill-fated passenger liner were unaware that it had hit an iceberg and was sinking. Upon later investigation, those who had seen the distress flares from the stricken ship admitted they thought they were merely part of the maiden voyage celebrations!

However, the resultant 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. As late as the mid-twentieth century the world's commercial shipping fleet and burgeoning air transport system lacked an available full-time, global emergency reporting system. On April 15, 1958 the United States Coast Guard and commercial shipping representatives began discussions which led to the creation of Amver.

Originally known as the Atlantic Merchant Vessel Emergency Reporting (AMVER) System, it became operational on July 18, 1958. Amver began as an experiment, confined to waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, notorious for icebergs, fog and winter storms. Vice Admiral Alfred C. Richmond, Coast Guard Commandant at the time, called on all commercial vessels of U.S. and foreign registry, over 1,000 gross tons and making a voyage of more than 24 hours, to voluntarily become Amver participants. The basic premise of Amver, as a vehicle for mariner to help mariner without regard to nationality, continues to this day.

The first home of the Amver Center was at the Customs House in downtown New York City, due to the fact that many commercial cargo and passenger lines operating in the Atlantic maintained offices nearby, and Amver's success would depend on close ties to the merchant fleet. Subsequent homes for the Amver computer would include Washington, D.C; Governors Island, New York; and now at Martinsburg, West Virginia. A Visitors Center has continuously resided in New York, currently at the Coast Guard's Battery Park Building, just a few blocks from the old Customs House.

The system's first computer was an IBM RAMAC (Random Access Method Accounting Control), characterized as being able to "evaluate information and determine the position of vessels through dead reckoning." The product of the computer was a "Surface Picture" or "SURPIC" of an area of the ocean, indicating the Amver-participating ships in the vicinity. The world's oldest maritime radio station, Sweden's Gothenburg Radio (SAG) which began operating in 1905, was the charter network participant in 1958.

Only two years after Amver began, its 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, Amver 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 the early years, Amver-participating ships responded to situations as varied 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; and, an expectant mother needing medical aid aboard the SS DORIC.

In 1966, the Coast Guard moved its regional headquarters from the Customs House to Governors Island, in upper New York Bay. The move included the Amver Center and consolidated all New York area Coast Guard activities, including a Rescue Coordination Center, at one site. One year after the move, AMVER's title was revised to read Automated Merchant VEssel Reporting program.

Amver's second decade was marked by rapid technological progress. It took Amver only a short time, in the view of its operators and customers, to prove its cost effectiveness as a SAR tool. After all, participation was 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 in Amver 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. Today, due to its global acceptance and familiarity, it is simply called Amver.

Amver took its place in the history of the 1960s and 1970s by playing an important role in the U.S. space program. Amver was 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. At the same time, Amver continued its job of protecting mariners at sea, as in the case of a Scottish seaman aboard the M/V TYNE BRIDGE whose life was saved when an Amver SURPIC produced a nearby passenger liner with a doctor on board.

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, Amver Center specialists were processing 2,000 reports every 24 hours.

On October 4th, 1980, Amver made its mark in the world news media by orchestrating the 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 Amver system.

Amver development has followed the state-of-the-art from punch cards and vacuum tubes, through the printed circuit board, to the microchip. In 1982, database maintenance operations were shifted to two Prime 750 mini-computers installed at the Operations Computer Center on Governors Island.

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 Amver participation mandatory for U.S.-flag shipping, and suspending the requirement for the filing of reports to the overlapping USMER reporting system. This benefited many U.S. masters, already Amver participants, who were juggling reports to two parallel systems, and allowed for a consolidated plot of all U.S. shipping worldwide.

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 Amver system. That year, Amver participation grew by 16 percent. In 1985, a snapshot of Amver's last three years had the system tracking 87,543 voyages.

The decision was made in the late 1980s to become even more proactive in Amver recruitment by exhibiting at, or attending, industry exhibitions and trade shows, such as Posidonia (Greece); the Seatrade Tanker Show (UK); SMM (Germany); Cruise Shipping (USA); SASMEX (UK); NEVA (Russia); Maritime Cyprus, and Super Yacht (France).

The U.S. Coast Guard also created an annual Amver Awards Program as a way of rewarding those ships which remain "on plot" for at least 128 days in a calendar year. These awards have become instrumental in Amver recruitment and retention. Amver awards are a tribute to the support of a ship's crew, management, and ownership, which is so integral to the program's success.

Amver award ceremonies have been hosted by U.S. Embassies and Consulates abroad; and maritime industry organizations, such as the Norwegian Shipowners Association; the German Shipowners Association; and the Propeller Club of the United States (Ports of Piraeus, London and Limassol), among others.

The awards consist of a Letter of Appreciation to the company, a Certificate of Merit to each ship, and a colored Amver pennant, representing a ship's continuous participation in the program: blue for (1) year; gold (5) years; purple (10) years. A distinctive plaque is presented for (15) years, an engraved pewter plate for (20) years, and an acrylic globe for (25) years.

In addition, several special annual awards have been subsequently created by maritime organizations such as LLP, Ltd. (Publishing) (UK); PTT Telecom Netherlands (U.S.) (Satellite Communications) Inc.; Argus Business Media (SAFETY AT SEA Magazine) (UK); the Association For Rescue At Sea (AFRAS); and the New York Council of the Navy League, honoring ships involved in rescues requiring extraordinary shiphandling, heroism or danger.

With the advent of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), the role of Amver was redefined to complement the emerging technology. Rescue coordination centers around the world seized on the value of Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBS), Inmarsat-C and Digital Select Calling terminal auto-alarms to "take the search out of search and rescue." Then, attention could be turned to Amver as a tool for the rescue phase of the operation. As the industry became familiar with this technology, Amver-participating ships have been instrumental in investigating potentially accidental alerts, thus saving limited SAR resources for actual emergencies, and saving money and lives.

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. Home for the Amver Center was moved to the Operations Systems Center, a new facility designed and built to consolidate many Coast Guard computer systems at Martinsburg, West Virginia. Contracted out to civilian operation, this facility released many staff members for reassignment throughout the Coast Guard.

In 1992, an Amver-participating ship recovered famed French yachtswoman Florence Arthaud after her trimaran capsized during a solo race. This resulted in Amver's first exposure on national network television on the NBC "Today" Show. Host Joe Garagiola conducted a live interview with Ms. Arthaud while a filmed segment, shot in the Rescue Coordination Center on Governors Island, explained Amver. During the Columbus Quincentennial celebrations in New York, Amver hosted the arrival of the 35 Tall Ship masters of OPSAIL 1992 to a receiving line of dignitaries including Secretary of Transportation Andrew Card, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral John Kime.

The Amver 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, received mention in the pages of National Geographic magazine. In 1994, a television crew from "60 Minutes New Zealand," aboard a vintage PBY plane, filmed the actual ditching of the aircraft at sea and their rescue by a Norwegian Amver-participating ship. Later that year, six Amver-participating ships converged on the burning Italian cruise ship ACHILLE LAURO to recover 504 of the 976 survivors. And, in 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.

As Amver sought to enhance its stature in the international arena, award ceremonies featured the first participation by a sitting Head of State, President Glafkos Clerides of Cyprus. Other presentation officials included Prince Albert of Monaco and Secretary General William O'Neil of the International Maritime Organization. In 1995, the Amver Visitors Center in New York City hosted a visit by King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway, following in the footsteps of his father, King Olav V, who also visited the Amver Center in 1968.

Other distinguished guests at the Amver Visitors Center have included former National Security Advisor VADM John Poindexter; Mr. Vasily Kuprianovsky, Personal Advisor to Russian President Yeltsin; Greek Coast Guard RADM Nicholas Kalyvas; cruise ship OCEANOS SAR mission coordinator, South African Air Force Colonel George Hallowes; Turkish Coast Guard Commandant RADM Ekmel Totrakan; Mr. Christoph Hinz, Director General, German Ministry of Transport; classes of the World Maritime University and industry, media, military and diplomatic officials from many nations.

Following a visit and presentation to Chinese government officials at the Shanghai Maritime Academy, the Peoples Republic of China announced its intention to allow vessels of its COSCO national fleet to participate in Amver. Just several months later, in April of 1996, the Chinese container ship GAO HE rescued a retired U.S. Navy captain from his stricken sailing vessel in the Pacific.

Taking advantage of the media-conscious era of the 1990s, Amver's visibility has been heightened by its feature in several episodes of the syndicated weekly television series "Coast Guard,"; the Public Broadcasting System/Cable program "World Business Review," hosted by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger; and a radio talk show on WPWA in Philadelphia.

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.

Today, over 22,000 ships from hundreds of nations participate in Amver. An average of 4,000 ships are on the Amver plot each day and those numbers continue to increase The 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.

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 Amver 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 Amver system. Amver will also act as a resource for SAR authorities managing maritime incidents in the newly navigable waters of the Arctic.