The 12 staff who run the UK Maritime Trade Operations field 50 phone calls and 3,000 emails a day, helping ships crossing the waters from Somalia to India.
Maritime call centre helps in war against piracy
DUBAI // The pirates' gunfire and the explosion of a rocket-propelled grenade were so loud Cdr James Cohen could hear them through the phone of the colleague next to him.
The attack failed, but not before the men recorded it on a detailed chart of hijacking attempts and other suspicious activity at sea.
It was all in a day's work for the 12 staff who run the UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), an emergency call centre in Dubai for ships crossing the waters from Somalia to India, where pirates stalk.
An estimated 2,000 ships cross that stretch each day.
The team fields as many as 50 phone calls and 3,000 emails a day in an office lined with computer screens at the British consulate.
Most of their correspondence involves routine check-ins or false alarms, but they also provide a detailed report for three multinational counter-piracy forces that help them to analyse risks and position warships.
At most, 25 warships are patrolling 2.6 million square miles of sea so any added information is helpful.
"We use all the info we get from UKMTO and all our other maritime partners to decide where to place our ships," says Cdr Jacqueline Sherriff, a spokeswoman for EU Navfor, one of the three forces.
"The most important thing is information-sharing to make sure you have the best picture possible of the shipping area."
The two other multinational forces are led by Nato and the US. China, India, Japan and South Korea, which have their own counter-piracy operations, can request specific information from UKMTO.
Dozens of warships are logged on to the system at any time, says Cdr Cohen, the UKMTO officer in charge. "Everyone uses it."
He points to acronyms on a screen representing various frigates.
On another computer screen Cdr Cohen shows a map of the Gulf of Aden, crowded with dots and names of ships.
The UKMTO has increased its efforts in recent years as the threat of piracy increased, although this was not its original mandate.
It was set up with two staff in the region a few weeks after the September 11 attacks to reassure commercial vessels that they could continue global trade.
"The purpose of the UKMTO ultimately is to improve the confidence of everyone in the shipping industry," Cdr Cohen said. "Piracy is an adjunct to that because it's all part and parcel of the same problem."
The two staff worked out of a hotel. In 2007 they added a third team member, then another two in the Second Gulf War. They moved into their own office in 2010.
The team still advises ships on matters not related to piracy. They fielded two dozen calls a day when Iran threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz at the start of the year.
They also offer guidance on accidents such as fires and injuries.
Each day they begin to produce their main brief at 4am and send it to navies at 6.30am. They update their map four times a day.
At 11am they receive email updates from about three-quarters of the ships crossing the high-risk waters, and spend the rest of the day processing them.
They have learnt that most attempted hijackings occur by 1pm.
The ship that called while under attack last month, one of the largest container vessels in the world, faced little threat of being boarded by pirates.
But it provided data that helped to build a fuller picture of the threat.
"The phone rang and I could hear gunfire in the background," says watchkeeper Terry Allen, an able seaman in the British navy.
"I got all the details and put them up."