Coast Guard distress system in need of modernization

The Coast Guard is set to launch an estimated $140 million program to update the communications system that it uses to receive distress calls from boaters and to communicate among its facilities.

Called the National Distress System Modernization Program it will replace outdated and nonstandard communications equipment currently in use in the NDS with reliable commercial off-the- shelf products that will expand coverage of the system.

The NDS has two main purposes: It provides short-range communications for distress calls made by mariners and commercial boaters and it provides command control and communications between the Coast Guard's various facilities including its cutters airplanes other vehicles and port security units.

"We are talking about a huge constituency in terms of the people that use it " said Commander Jon Allen deputy project manager at the Coast Guard. "Through the modernization we're looking to add additional functions that we can't do or are limited in doing " Allen said. "A lot of the [equipment] from the current system comes from the 1970s vintage. We want the system to be more reliable for improved communications and [increased] coverage."

'No Excuse'

Some of the new features the Coast Guard wants to incorporate into the NDS include a data communications capability the use of terrestrial and satellite communications and a position-location capability that will automatically locate a mariner in distress. "The faster we can get to the person the more likely we are to save them " Allen said.

Users of the system are looking forward to the upgrade. Tucker Thompson professional sailor and consultant said "When it comes to spending money there's no excuse for not keeping safety equipment and technology up to date."The modernized system should also protect classified data automatically record time stamp and play back incoming voice communications and be compatible and interoperable with other Coast Guard units government agencies and recreational boaters.

Some of the limitations of the current system include the inability to provide coverage of coastal areas bays inlets and rivers. There are 65 communication gaps and other areas that the NDS does not cover according to the Coast Guard. In addition there is not enough channel capacity to handle the increased traffic on the system. Allen said the agency wants to make the NDS "flexible enough to accommodate future growth" as new technology and requirements surface.

"The Coast Guard needs to modernize [NDS] equipment and increase the availability of the system to boaters in distress and to the Coast Guard " agreed John McLean marketing manager at Unisys Corp. "Increasing the availability of the system to the public and maritime industry is the biggest benefit of the modernized system."

McLean said Unisys which currently holds the Coast Guard's Standard Workstation III contract is looking at the modernization program. "I expect we would like to have some involvement " he said.

The Coast Guard plans to release a request for proposals for the program in September next year with an award in the fall of 1999. Allen said the agency plans to hold one-on-one meetings with vendors starting next month. For more information contact comms.rdc.uscg.mil/NDSmod/NDS.html.

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