Magazine Article | July 25, 2006

U.S. Coast Guard Requires Real-Time Communications

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

A mass-messaging communication system helps the Delaware Bay Sector of the U.S. Coast Guard respond to natural disasters and/or terrorist attacks instantaneously.

Integrated Solutions, August 2006

The United States’ ports are vital to the country’s economy. According to the American Association of Port Authorities, port activity through waterborne commerce contributed $729 billion to U.S. international trade and personal income of $44 billion in 2002. With that said, the protection of those ports from environmental and human attacks is vital. Think back to the fallout after hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the furor over the proposed United Arab Emirates port deal (that eventually fell through). The ports are secured and managed by a number of government entities, including but not limited to, port authorities, U.S. Customs, and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).

The USCG is responsible for alerting entities, called stakeholders, involved with or affected by the ports (e.g. community governments, law enforcement agencies, and members of the industry) in the event of a terrorist attack, accident, or natural disaster, called critical incidents. The alert conveys proper procedural information for the entities to follow during these events. The Delaware Bay Sector of the USCG covers a tristate port region and includes ports in Philadelphia; Wilmington, DE; and Camden, NJ. This sector of the USCG employs 300 active-duty personnel and supports a stakeholder community of 2,000.

The Delaware Bay Sector of the USCG, like many other sectors, maintained a list of its stakeholder contact information on an Excel spreadsheet. Depending on the stakeholders’ preferences, the contacts could be office phone numbers, mobile phone numbers, fax numbers, and/or e-mail addresses. “When an incident occurred, our staff would identify the appropriate stakeholders to contact and manually phone, e-mail, or fax the appropriate messages,” says Lt. Bill McKinstry of the Delaware Bay Sector of the USCG. “We’d dial numbers one by one, so it was a very slow, time-consuming method.”

In 2003, the USCG Maritime Safety Office Philadelphia performed a test of the USCG’s ability to respond to and notify stakeholders of a critical incident. Following the exercise, the USCG was able to identify several operational areas that required improvement, namely its communication methods. The USCG realized it needed a real-time, automated alert notification system.

The USCG identified key criteria for the communication solution, including:

  • creating contact groups and prioritizing them
  • simultaneously broadcasting outbound messages in multiple formats (e.g. videophone, e-mail, instant messenger, and voice over Internet Protocol [VoIP])
  • providing authorized personnel with access to required documents and forms from the field, if necessary
  • creating electronic time/date stamps on communications and information received and transmitted
  • supporting interoperability within the USCG’s existing infrastructure for voice and data networks, including public telephone networks, Internet, VoIP phones, mobile phones, PCs, PDAs, and Microsoft Outlook.

With all of those requirements in mind, the USCG researched possible solutions and implemented the Alert Notification and Incident Command System (ANICS) from vendor Advanced Logic Systems, Inc. (ALSI).

ALSI has a history with the government and municipal sectors and has been a partner of Verizon since 1997, providing government and state agencies with converged communication solutions. The ANICS product is in line with the national Department of Homeland Security solutions and was developed by ALSI in conjunction with the USCG and other government agencies. ANICS is a Web-based solution that allows entities to communicate outside their existing communication systems with a broad community of contacts and/or users. The communication can take place over a range of methods (e.g. voice, e-mail) and with a range of devices (e.g. phones, PDAs). To create the solution for the USCG Sector Delaware Bay, ALSI incorporated the USCG’s spreadsheet of contacts into its database and created password access controls. The contacts can be sorted as needed by the USCG to create groups to send messages. “With ANICS, we can reach port stakeholders regarding any situation almost immediately,” says McKinstry. “We have created 64 groups and can lump the groups together if we wanted to send messages to 400 or 500 people.”

The ANICS solution also reports who received and acknowledged the sent communications. The messages can also include calls to action, such as, “Press #1 if you can respond in 12 hours.” During Hurricane Katrina, the USCG Sector Delaware Bay used the system to communicate with 100 reservists to request their assistance and, if appropriate, dispatch the reservists. From his office PC, McKinstry was able to see in real time the responses from the reservists. “It helps me to see who responded to messages requiring action, so we don’t waste time following up,” he says. “We can thus manage our response to events much more easily and accurately.”