Glitches stall Coast Guard radio upgrade

Third Class Boatswain's Mate Jody Howey waits for a response from a boater on VHF-FM channel 16 in the Communications Center at Coast Guard Station Wrightsville Beach, N.C.

Kimberly Wilder/U.S. Coast Guard

The Coast Guard's $611 million project to overhaul its coastal radio system for search and rescue has fallen months behind schedule because of delays in integrating control system software.

The House of Representatives has taken note of the delays and plans to fund the Rescue 21 system at $27 million less than the administration's request for fiscal 2005. The House voted to provide $134 million for Rescue 21 next year, which is still $791,000 above the 2004 appropriation.

The House Appropriations Committee justified its reduction in a report, stating, 'Rescue 21 has been experiencing significant software development problems, resulting in the program falling about one year behind schedule.'

The spending panel said the release of Rescue 21 funds would depend on successful completion of software and hardware integration and quality tests expected this summer.

But the Coast Guard does not expect to complete its testing until early fall, according to Coast Guard Cmdr. Ken Marien, deputy project manager for Rescue 21.

'It took us a little longer than we thought to integrate various commercial products,' Marien said, referring to the software that controls the Rescue 21 radios. 'This is essentially software to operate the components of the radio systems and graphical user interfaces.'

The guard had expected to complete software testing by March, but now that deadline has stretched to September, Marien said.

'The big holdup was the software integration,' he said. 'That was the big challenge.'

Rescue 21 program planners have started two prototype versions of the advanced search and rescue system at Atlantic City, N.J., and on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

Distress calls

Rescue 21 lets Coast Guard personnel remotely operate equipment at 'high sites,' towers located along the coasts, to communicate with Coast Guard boats and other vessels.

'The high site is a steel skeleton tower that gets coverage out to 20 nautical miles to hear distress calls,' Marien said.

The Coast Guard has 46 communications centers around the coasts, on the Great Lakes and on inland waterways.

General Dynamics Corp.'s C4 Systems unit is performing the Rescue 21 work in coordination with Coast Guard software and radio specialists.

'It's a 19-year project,' Marien said. General Dynamics' contract, which is mainly on a fixed-price basis, calls for four years to deploy the system and two years of follow-on maintenance. General Dynamics is eligible to receive extensions of the maintenance contract, Marien said. A General Dynamics spokesman referred most questions about the contract to the guard.

General Dynamics won the contract in a competition with Lockheed Martin Corp. and Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego.

The project delay has not increased Rescue 21's cost, Marien said.

When General Dynamics received the contract in September 2002, it was called the National Disaster and Response System Modernization.

When it becomes operational, 'Rescue 21 will take the search out of search and rescue,' Marien said. Improved and standardized VHF radios will dramatically reduce the area of coastline that Coast Guard rescuers will have to search to locate imperiled boaters.

Rescue 21 communication centers use servers running Microsoft Windows NT. Each center has a disaster recovery plan in case systems fail.

System operators use two 22-inch, flat-panel monitors. One display shows a geographic image of a region's coastline, together with all Coast Guard vessels in the area and lines of bearing from the towers to various vessels offshore.

The second monitor shows radio controls and can signal the Coast Guard which radios have been activated by distress calls from the VHF radios, which boaters are required to carry.

In addition to its search and rescue function, the 'maritime 911' system will help the Coast Guard carry out several other missions, such as environmental protection, homeland security work and law enforcement.

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