Important Corrections: Iridium is not being sued by the Kaufman family. Whenever LLC, a satellite communications service reseller, is being sued. Additionally, Iridium spokeswoman Diane Hockenberry points out that Iridium was bound by privacy laws not to release the message from the Nina that might have changed the way the rescue was conducted. From Ms. Hockenberry:
Iridium is not named in the lawsuit by the Kaufmans. They are suing Whenever Communications, which is a reseller of our air time through one of our service providers. Iridium is a wholesale company and we work through a network of service providers to sell our air time and services, and some of those then resell to additional dealers. We have no contractual relationship with Whenever Communications.
Also a press release that went out this morning by the families of those aboard the Nina called into question many of the findings from the report that came out on the rescue Coordination Center activities surrounding the search for the lost Nina. We are bound by privacy laws that prohibit us from releasing the content of a text message without, for instance, a court order or request from a valid government agency such as the U.S. Department of State.
While these corrections are vital facts that should be put forward, I still feel emergency communications companies would be well served to learn from these events. Ms. Hockenberry suggested that Iridium would support but not initiate appropriate changes to the privacy laws that affected the release of the Nina message. In the case of the Kaufman’s service being disrupted, the problem of a reseller and or service retailer disrupting service seems to be more complicated . “We just haven’t seen this scenario,” Hockenberry said. They have now seen that scenario, which could well be repeated.
The Iridium Communications company is facing some tough questions.
A report released today indicates that the satellite communications company did not reveal an undelivered message sent by the crew of the yacht Nina when she was caught in a large storm off Australia last year until prompted by the US State Department. The story is in The Australian and elsewhere. The message, sent on June 4, revealed that Nina was already in some trouble, running under bare poles with her canvas torn. Had that message reached rescue services sooner, the search level might have been upgraded much sooner than June 27.
This revelation comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed by the Kaufman family. As I reported in my July Column, the Kaufmans were unable to use their satphone at a critical time because it required a new sim card which had been mailed to them. In short, while at sea, it was working one minute then not the next while they were in an emergency situation. They may have gotten medical advice for their infant Lyra that might have changed the complexion of that rescue.
Of course, this spotlights the question of how much responsibility a service provider such as Iridium bears in these situations. While it’s impossible to render an opinion on these particular situations without a whole lot more detail, my initial thoughts are that if a service is being sold as a safety tool, that company bears an ethical (if not legal) responsibility to keep their service active to the best of their ability and share relevant information with rescue authorities even before being asked.
The other question spotlighted is how much should a mariner rely on a service to monitor them for safety. There’s a good reason for redundancy at sea. And, as old fashioned as it sounds, one should always assume that one must take care of one’s own emergencies at sea and prepare for that. Cool as it is, modern communication technology still has its limitations.