Coast Guard awards maritime 911 contract

The Coast Guard awarded a $611 million contract to General Dynamics Decision Systems, a unit of General Dynamics Corp., Sept. 24 to modernize its maritime emergency response system after convincing a special interagency panel that it was a "mission-critical" project.

In July, the Office of Management and Budget froze more than $1 billion of funding for information technology projects in the planning stages at major agencies that would be shifted to the proposed Homeland Security Department. This included the Coast Guard's plan to update the 30-year-old communications and data systems the agency uses to receive emergency calls from boaters and share information among its own facilities.

The Coast Guard spent several weeks presenting its case to an interagency panel of chief information officers chaired by officials from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Homeland Security, and the Coast Guard got the go-ahead to spend money on the system.

Capt. Ron Hewitt, the Coast Guard's project manager for the National Distress and Response System Modernization Project, said the acting CIO presented the agency's case to the panel and agreed that modernization of the aging system was "mission critical."

The new system, called Rescue 21, will be able to detect Mayday calls from boaters, pinpoint the location of the calls and coordinate rescue operations along the U.S. coastline and interior waterways. It also will be able to determine if the distress call is legitimate and coming from a boat or a location on land, according to Jeff Osman, General Dynamics' program manager.

The system will include ground-based installations at 270 Coast Guard facilities and more than 300 radio towers. Boaters will be able to use their radios to communicate with the system. The system will even be able to detect a distress call that lasts only one second.

At a news conference Sept. 24, Transportation Department Secretary Norman Mineta underscored Rescue 21's role as a system to help save lives. "Simply put, this new system will be the maritime equivalent of a 911 system, enhancing maritime safety by helping to minimize the time that search and rescue teams spend looking for people in distress."

General Dynamics beat out Lockheed Martin Corp. and Science Applications International Corp. for the contract.

The contract has a six-year base and three add-ons for a total of 19 years, according to General Dynamics. The company's team includes Motorola Inc., CACI International Inc., Fuentez Systems Concepts Inc., BAE Systems' Integrated Defense Solutions Inc., Communications Services Inc., L&E Associates and American Nucleonics Corp.

Deployment for U.S. coastal waters is scheduled to be completed by September 2005. But systems along Western rivers, the Caribbean, Alaska, Hawaii and Guam will not be operational until 2006.

The new system will fit into the architecture of the Coast Guard's overall modernization project, the $17 billion Deepwater program, which will replace an aging fleet of cutters, aircraft, sensors and the supporting command, control, communications and surveillance systems.

Despite the freeze on IT project funding for agencies slated to move to the proposed Homeland Security Department, vendors and others say there have been no long-term delays in getting important projects moving.

"So far, there are no 'casualties,' " said Bruce McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget and now president of McConnell International LLC, a consulting group.

Roger Baker, a former CIO at the Commerce Department and currently executive vice president of CACI International, said there have been few holdups because of the freeze. "The tap is wide open," he said. "We're involved in a number of things on the list tied to homeland security. They've gone into review and snapped out of there with no delay. They've got it together on this thing."

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) plans to hold a hearing Oct. 1 on the freeze's impact on the federal government. Dave Marin, Davis' spokesman, said the congressman in general supports the freeze. "People aren't asking us to simply spend money. They are asking us to spend money more wisely."

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