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Vessel traffic services

Vessel traffic services (VTS) are recognised internationally as an aid for safe and efficient movement of vessels. Maritime Safety Queensland is the VTS Authority for VTS in Queensland.

There are 5 regional VTS centres along Queensland’s coast:

  • Cairns
  • Townsville
  • Hay Point
  • Gladstone
  • Brisbane

The Townsville centre also provides the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Service (Reef VTS) that monitors the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait region.

About VTS centres

VTS centres are traffic control centres for shipping in ports and their surrounding waterways. They operate 24 hours a day and use shore-based systems to:

  • help identify and monitor vessels
  • strategically plan vessel movements
  • give navigational information and advice.

Benefits of a VTS centre

VTS centres interact and communicate with vessel masters and pilots to give them timely and important information that supports the decision-making process on board the vessel.

A VTS centre uses their tools to help:

  • prevent incidents from developing
  • prevent incidents from developing into accidents
  • prevent accidents from developing into disasters
  • mitigate the consequences of incidents, accidents and disasters
  • prevent pollution and coordinate response activities.

The reliability and continuity of communications from vessels in the area affects the VTS centre’s ability to provide clear and accurate information. Accident prevention depends on:

  • how well the VTS centre can detect when a dangerous situation is developing
  • the VTS centre’s ability to give warnings about dangerous situations.

Functions of VTS

VTS centres monitor and communicate with vessels for safer navigation.

This is done by maintaining a vessel traffic image of vessels moving through the area. A vessel traffic image, or integrated surface picture, is a visual representation of the position and movement of vessels on a geographic information system.

The vessel traffic image allows VTS officers to talk to individual vessels in their area and give and receive:

  • simple information, like weather warnings, safety information and the position of other vessels
  • more complex traffic management information.

VTS centres provide vessel masters and pilots with:

VTS objectives

VTS objectives with performance indicators and targets are established to support VTS commitment and efforts in achieving the quality policy and are reviewed regularly through the management review process.

The quality objectives are measurable and reviewed by RHMs and MVTMs at the regional level and by Maritime Services holistically.

These objectives are in alignment to the purpose of VTS as defined by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Chapter V (Safety of Navigation) Regulation 12, VTS contributes to provide:

  • Safety of life at sea
  • Safety and efficiency of navigation
  • Protection of the marine environment, adjacent shore areas, work sites and offshore installations from possible adverse effects of maritime traffic (SOLAS)

The service delivered by VTS as indicated in MSQ Standard (Services Provided by VTS):

  • Assist with the safe and efficient vessel movements and the safety, security and resilience of our coastal waterways.
  • Enhance navigational safety by interacting with shipping to provide information on potential traffic conflicts and other navigational safety information,
  • Minimise the risk of a maritime accident and consequential ship-sourced pollution and damage to the marine environment
  • Maintain an effective Vessel Traffic Service Quality Management System (VTSQMS) addressing the requirements of ISO 9001:2015
  • Ensure compliance with relevant statutory and regulatory requirements
  • Endeavour, at all times, to maximise stakeholder satisfaction with the services provided
  • Provide response agencies with the information necessary to respond quickly in the event of any safety or pollution incident.

Ship encounter information

Ship encounter information includes:

  • the position, identity and intentions of other vessels in the area
  • predicted vessel encounters or where vessels might pass each other.

Ship encounter information is not broadcast across the whole VTS area. VTS officers give this information to individual vessels as needed and actively contact vessels if significant changes are relevant to them.

Vessels receive ship encounter information:

  • when they enter the VTS area
  • when there is new or changed traffic information
  • at any other time they request it from a VTS centre.
This information is taken from the vessel traffic image and the information vessels report to the VTS centre. It is useful for pilots and vessel masters because it tells them who is near them so that they can communicate directly with that vessel to work out safe passing arrangements. This is very important in areas where there is restricted room to manoeuvre.

Maritime safety information

Maritime safety information is about conditions, events or other factors that could affect a vessel safely navigating through the area. This includes:
  • faulty aids to navigation
  • waterway conditions
  • weather
  • hazards
  • other factors that may affect a vessel’s intended path.

VTS centres give maritime safety information relevant to the vessel’s location and intended course with the ship encounter information.

Maritime safety information is reported by vessels in the area and the information is only as accurate as the information given. As VTS centres may not have direct knowledge of all hazardous situations in the area, it’s important for all vessels to report hazardous situations that aren’t already in the maritime safety information advice.

Maritime safety information is also issued from Rescue Coordination Centre Australia. These navigational warnings are called ‘AUSCOAST Warnings’.

Navigation assistance

VTS centres give navigation assistance when a vessel:

  • may be approaching shallow water
  • deviates from a recommended route
  • doesn’t alter course at a critical waypoint.

Using the vessel traffic image, VTS operators are alerted to these types of situations and can then either:

  • intervene to confirm the vessel’s intentions
  • give navigation assistance to avoid an incident if the vessel is approaching danger.

Vessels in a VTS area must keep a listening watch on a specific radio frequency for navigational or other warnings—the radio frequency for each port is noted in its port procedures manual. Vessels may be contacted directly by VTS operators if there is a risk of incident, or where traffic flow is regulated.

VTS centre tools

A VTS centre communicates with vessels in their area using:

Vessel reporting system

When vessels enter a VTS area, they must contact the VTS centre to tell them:

  • who they are
  • where they are
  • where they are going
  • how they will get there.

This is usually reported using radio and must be done by all vessels in the area that are:

  • 35m or more in overall length
  • oil tankers, liquefied gas carriers or chemical tankers
  • vessels that are involved in a towing or pushing operation.

The information from each vessel is used to create the vessel traffic image to track the vessel as it moves through the VTS area.

Other vessels moving through the VTS area may voluntarily report, but must follow the standard reporting requirements found in the port procedures for that area if they do.

To get more information on reporting requirements, read the port procedures manual for the area you are operating.

Monitoring with sensors

VTS centres monitor vessels in the area using:

  • radar
  • Automated Identification System (AIS)
  • VHF marine radio
  • other maritime sensors.

Radar is a shore-based system that detects and tracks vessels in the area covered by the radar site. It gives regular information about the position and speed of a vessel.

AIS is a system on the vessel that uses VHF radio frequencies to continually transmit the vessel’s identity, position, course, speed and other data. It identifies the vessel’s position at regular intervals.

Another type of maritime sensor that is used by Reef VTS in the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait region to monitor vessels is automated position reporting (APR). APR is an Inmarsat C satellite system. Almost all vessels in Australian waters have Inmarsat C as part of their Global Maritime Distress Safety System carriage requirements. APR allows equipment on the vessel to be programmed to send position reports to the VTS centre at prescribed intervals (the default interval is 45 minutes). The system can also poll a vessel on demand and get an updated position report.

The information from these sensors is combined into the vessel traffic image.

Communication systems

To communicate with a VTS centre in Queensland, you need to use English and the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) Standard Marine Communication Phrases.

You can communicate with a VTS centre in Queensland using VHF radio, which allows voice communication between vessels and the shore in the VTS area. The VHF frequencies to use for VTS communications are listed in the relevant port procedure.

If you can’t communicate with the VTS centre using VHF radio, you must give the required information by phone, fax or email. The relevant port procedure details each VTS centre’s:

  • VHF frequency communication channel
  • phone number
  • fax number
  • email address.
Last updated
18 June 2018