Coast Guard info-sharing at ports slow to get started

Six years after Congress passed a law requiring that key U.S. seaports create hubs for sharing information with local partners, none of those Interagency Operations Centers are in full operation yet, according to a new report.

Under the SAFE Port Act of 2006, the Homeland Security Department and Coast Guard were to have established the operations centers at high-priority ports by October 2009 for the purpose of improving situational awareness, security and coordination. That deadline was not met, states the Government Accountability Office report of Feb. 13.

The Coast Guard said the delays occurred because it didn't get funds appropriated to establish the centers until 14 months after enactment of the law. Also, the definition of the centers was evolving at that time, according to the agency.

To date, the operations centers have begun operating in ports in 11 of the Coast Guard’s 35 geographic sectors. The centers use the agency’s WatchKeeper application to share information with local partners on port vessel activity, vessel identification and contents, weather and other conditions.

However, while the Coast Guard has set up the structures for information sharing, the actual sharing activity has been slow to get going. Most of the local partners did not access the WatchKeeper application during a recent period, the GAO said.

“The Coast Guard has granted WatchKeeper access to port partners at 11 of the 12 sectors where it has been installed, but more than 80 percent of those port partners did not log on from July through September 2011,” Stephen Caldwell, director of homeland security and justice issues for the GAO, wrote in the report.

With such low rates of participation, none of the existing interagency centers are considered to be in full operation yet.

“According to the Coast Guard’s analysis of sector status reports, none of its sectors have achieved IOCs with full operating capability,” the GAO said.

The report from the congressional watchdog outlines a number of shortcomings with DHS’ and the Coast Guard’s implementation of the port security law and its interagency operation center requirements.

For one, the Coast Guard’s WatchKeeper system apparently is not meeting the needs of its local partners. GAO auditors said they asked several port partners why they were not using WatchKeeper. The most frequently cited reason was that WatchKeeper “does not help them perform their missions,” the GAO said.

Furthermore, while the Coast Guard consulted with Customs and Border Protection to develop WatchKeeper, it did not get input from all local partners, GAO said.

“Without developing, documenting, and implementing a process on how it will incorporate port partners’ feedback into future WatchKeeper requirements, the Coast Guard does not have reasonable assurance that WatchKeeper will satisfy the needs of port partners and facilitate IOC goals,” the report said.

Finally, the Coast Guard also did not define WatchKeeper requirements, cost, and schedule in accordance with established guidance, the GAO said. As a result, the project has moved forward without a clear definition of what its function is supposed to be, without a reliable cost estimate, and without a reliable schedule, the watchdog agency said.

The Coast Guard acknowledged those problems, saying they developed because of an “aggressive” development schedule, limited resources, and competing priorities.

As of October 2011, the Coast Guard stopped collecting data on whether the local partners are using WatchKeeper, a decision for which the GAO urged reversal.

“Without such data, it will be difficult for the Coast Guard to determine whether WatchKeeper is facilitating the Interagency Operations Center program in meeting its goals of improving information sharing and coordination of joint operations,” the GAO concluded.

The GAO recommended that the Coast Guard start collecting the WatchKeeper data again; set up a process for collecting input from the local partners; and restructure the requirements, cost estimates and schedule.

DHS officials agreed with the recommendations, subject to budget limitations.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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