The AFM Operations Centre
The AFM Operations Centre is located at Luqa Barracks. It is a multi-function structure, fulfilling various roles on the national and international level. Most of these functions go towards the fulfillment of international obligations on behalf of the State as well as other functions that are considered vital on a national level. In consideration of the importance of the tasks assigned to the Operations Centre (OPCEN), it has been furnished with various technological systems with robust redundancy to guarantee continued operations, at all hours by day and night and on every day of the year.
Command, Control and Communications
The primary function of the OPCEN is to enable the command and control of all AFM operations. Such operations routinely involve aircraft, patrol boats as well as land elements. Moreover, maritime operations may involve military, para-military or police assets of other nations, civilian aircraft, merchant vessels and other boats of any description. Operations can be close to Maltese shores or further offshore even in very distant locations around the globe. Hence, the AFM's communications system was required to be wide enough to cater for such a broad spectrum of possible users but in the same time be common on all AFM assets. Through the recent commissioning of an Integrated Communications System, the OPCEN is now capable of satellite and multi-band radio communications, both voice and data, in clear and encrypted.
Search and Rescue
The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) is an internationally agreed-upon set of safety procedures, types of equipment, and communication protocols used to increase safety and make it easier to rescue distressed ships, boats and aircraft.
GMDSS consists of several systems, which are intended to perform the following functions: alerting (including position determination of the unit in distress), search and rescue coordination, locating (homing), maritime safety information broadcasts, general communications, and bridge-to-bridge communications.
OPCEN plays a number of roles in this respect. First and foremost, it is the Malta Search and Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) both for maritime as well as aeronautical incidents. The RCC is designated as the national SAR Point of Contact, where all SAR related information and requests are directed to. The RCC is responsible to coordinate any SAR incident within the Malta Search and Rescue Region (see chart).
Figure 1 Malta Search and Rescue Region
To accomplish these functions, the staff is trained to high standards based on US Coast Guard techniques and utilising sophisticated SAR planning software, developed by the same United States Coast Guard (USCG). This was taken into consideration, even during the procurement process of AFM's vessels and aircraft to ensure full compatibility. This has been achieved to such a degree that plans developed on this planning tool are fully compatible on an electronic level with the navigation systems on the AFM's patrol boats and aircraft, thus freeing the crew of these assets from the pure navigation tasks to concentrate more on the search and rescue elements.
Another aspect taken on by OPCEN is the role of the Malta Coast Radio Station. In this role, a continuous listening watch is maintained on international distress radio frequencies in the VHF and MF bands. These communication means cover up to 20 nautical miles and 200 nautical miles respectively. Moreover, the Station transmits distress and safety related messages on the NAVTEX system which is received as text messages on board ships travelling through the service area covered by Malta (see chart)
Figure 2 Malta NAVTEX Service Area
Vessel Traffic Services (VTS)
A further role of the OPCEN is its designation as the Malta Coastal Vessel Traffic Services station as required by EU legislation. It is operated with a view to enhancing the safety and efficiency of maritime traffic, improving the response of local authorities to incidents, accidents or potentially dangerous situations at sea, including search and rescue operations, and contributing to a better prevention and detection of pollution by ships.
It is a system for maritime surveillance and incorporates the full integration of several coastal radar stations, Automatic Identification System (AIS), radio direction finding, weather stations and marine communications.
One of the AFM support roles is to assist the national lead entity in marine pollution issues. One element of this role sees the AFM as the national entity responsible to receive marine pollution reports from various sources, be it through the VTS, the Coast Radio Station or CleanSeaNet. The latter is an EU instrument, which gathers information of possible marine pollution through synthetic aperture radar imagery from space. Hence on a regular basis OPCEN receives such CleanSeaNet reports and ensures that appropriate action is taken to verify the data and that it reaches the relevant national entities.
Emergency Telephone Number - 112
112 is the common emergency telephone number that can be dialed free of charge from any telephone or any mobile number in order to reach emergency services (Ambulances, Civil Protection, the Police and the AFM). Should emenrgency AFM assistance be required, this can be requested over the 112 system that is quickly routed from the 112 call centre directly to the AFM OPCEN.
In addition to the close support and direction of Headquarters AFM Operations Branch, personnel employed from the Communications and Information Systems Company 4 Regiment AFM at the OPCEN are provided with advanced tools and communications fit-for-task to accomplish their mandate. In addition, considering the importance of business continuity at all times, critical functions can still remain operational independent of the OPCEN premises within Luqa Barracks and even independent of any terrestrial communications and internet services.