Coast Guard responds to 911

The Coast Guard is cruising along with some major procurements. Following last month's award of the Integrated Deepwater System — a landmark deal worth up to $17 billion to a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. — the agency next expects to select a company in September to modernize its marine 911 system.

The first phase of the project began in September 2000, when General Dynamics Corp., Lockheed Martin and Science Applications International Corp. won contracts that totaled nearly $25 million to develop, design and demonstrate an integrated National Distress and Response System.

One of those firms will be tapped for the second phase, potentially worth $1 billion over 20 years, to update the 30-year-old communications and data systems the Coast Guard uses to receive emergency calls from boaters and to share information among its own facilities.

"The maritime 911 system not only provides a distress network, but also provides an integrated coastal command and control system breaking down communications barriers experienced between cooperating agencies when responding jointly to emergencies," Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thomas Collins said in testimony at a hearing July 9 before the House Judiciary Committee's Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee.

General Dynamics held a news briefing July 11 to discuss the initiative. "They've got antiquated systems that are beginning to have some reliability problems," said Jeff Osman, General Dynamics' program manager for the system. "This system is going to improve communications significantly."

The system will provide 98 percent coverage — a 12 percent increase — up to 20 nautical miles from shore, bridging existing communications gaps. Other upgrades include enhanced 911, or e911, services and a position location capability that has been used by police and fire departments for decades to automatically pinpoint a mariner in distress.

Take the following scenario: A seafarer picks up the handset on a ship's radio and yells, "Mayday," before it cuts out. Such a transmission alone is not enough for the Coast Guard to determine where the vessel is.

This and other deficiencies with the current system prompted the agency to launch the modernization program about four years ago — all in the name of taking the search out of "search and rescue." With e911 and other tools, the Coast Guard will plunge the business of saving lives at sea into the electronic age.

"All these problems have been attributed to delays in search and rescue," said Jay Korman, a senior analyst with consulting firm DFI International. "It's a top priority. Congress has supported it for a while."

The agency plans for the winner to install up-to-date systems at two of its 46 group communications centers by the end of fiscal 2003 and nationwide by the end of fiscal 2006, Osman said. The rest of the contract life will be devoted to operation and maintenance.

There could be even bigger changes on the horizon. Earlier this year, President Bush unveiled his proposal to create a Cabinet-level Homeland Security Department that would house several existing agencies, including the Coast Guard.

Although the Coast Guard is ready to move into a new department, "the greatest danger to any Coast Guard mission would be to fracture the Coast Guard," Collins said.

Some members of Congress oppose the shift because of the agency's multiple mission service. Regardless of the outcome of the debate, the modernization program will support the agency's focus on homeland security — for instance, by enhancing situational awareness with graphical and textual data, Osman said.

And the system will be interoperable, a key to coordinating response efforts with other civilian agencies, the military and Deepwater systems, he said.

Lockheed's win on Deepwater, however, has not sealed the deal on marine 911, according to Osman and Korman.

"I think it's a race," Korman said. "And I wouldn't take bets on anyone."

***

Help is on the way

The Coast Guard is scheduled to pick a company in September to update its 30-year-old marine 911 system. Key features of the upgraded system, which will bridge existing communications gaps to provide 98 percent coverage, include:

* Two-way voice and data communications.

* Protected communications.

* Asset tracking.

* Digital voice recording with immediate playback.

* Position location capability.

* Interoperability with the military and other agencies.

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