THE VTS (Vessel Traffic Service) is a maritime traffic service created after the Second World War to make shipping in and out of Northern European ports (such as those in Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the Baltic Sea) safer and more efficient.
It was the geography of these areas that determined the need to put together different technologies to track the movements of ships and thus improve safety not only between the docks, but also in the waters near the ports: as international trade grew with maritime traffic, it became increasingly necessary to ensure that ships could safely reach the major terminals of the emerging global market, such as Rotterdam or Tilbury, which were often hidden behind sandbars, fog, shoals and shallow water.
Today, VTS is used in practically every major port in the world, managed by different administrations depending on the country in which the port is located, and in terms of technology, generally combines radar systems, CCTV camera systems, VHF radio-telephony and AIS (Automatic Information Systems).
This set of technologies ensures continuous monitoring within a well-defined area, called the VTS Area, within which a VTS Centre provides navigation services.
In Italy, maritime traffic services are provided by VTS centres managed by the Harbour Master’s Offices.
VTS IN ITALY
In Italy, the current VTS organisation took shape about ten years ago, and found its first application in the waters of the Straits of Messina and the Strait of Bonifacio between Sardinia and Corsica, two points in the Mediterranean Sea that are characterized not only by the large number of units that pass through them, but also by the often challenging nature of navigation on those particular routes.
In Italy, the General Command of the Harbour Master’s Offices issues national directives on the organisation of VTS Centres and operating methods for the provision of VTS services to maritime traffic, and provides training for personnel at its VTS training centre in Messina, where staff are trained according to international standards.
The local VTS Authority is the Harbour Master’s Office, where the VTS Centre is located, which is responsible for the management, operation and coordination of the services provided by the VTS Centre, including interaction with participating ships.
The VTS area, normally the sea around the port, basically corresponds to the area covered by the Harbour Master’s Office radar, within which navigation services are formally provided, including an information service through the dissemination of information that is useful to seafarers for safe navigation, a traffic organisation service to improve efficiency, and also a navigation assistance service, which consists of supporting the captain of the ship in critical situations at sea.
There are two types of VTS, that is, port VTS, when the services provided are aimed at traffic entering and exiting a port, in other words a port system of anchorages, or coastal VTS where the services are mainly aimed at (participating) maritime traffic passing through a given area, not necessarily headed to a port, as for example occurs in the Strait of Bonifacio. A VTS can also consist of a combination of both types.
The VTS Centres are organised and equipped in such a way as to always be able to provide the information service, normally by radio, through the VHF channels reserved for the VTS Centre, transmitting information at regular intervals, when deemed necessary, or upon request from a ship.
The service contains information on the location, identity and purpose of traffic, weather and navigability conditions, hazards and any other factors that might influence the vessel’s passage.
In addition, if formally declared by the VTS Centre, a navigational assistance service (NAS - Navigational Assistance Service) can be offered to assist the on-board decision making process and to monitor the outcome, especially in situations of navigational difficulties or adverse weather conditions or in cases of failure or shortcomings.
This service is provided either upon request from a ship, or whenever the VTS deems it necessary.
Using the NAS, the captain receives navigational information, with particular reference to the vessel’s position, trajectory and the obstacles they could encounter, including the movement and position of other ships, which however does not exempt them from their responsibilities with regard to the safety of the ship and avoiding collisions.
This service is particularly important at times of high traffic density or when the passage of special transport operations may have an impact on traffic flow.
In Italy, every local VTS authority is established by a specific decree from the Minister of Transport.
The decrees identify the local VTS’s area of competency, its participation regime, and any additional operational requirements. There are currently 12 VTS Centres in Italy: Messina, La Maddalena, Mazara del Vallo, Palermo, Trapani and Genoa (since 2008); La Spezia and Savona (since 2009); Bari, Brindisi, and Taranto (since 2011); and Trieste (since 2013).