Coast Guard's two-way alert system keeps partners informed

AWS 2.0 provides a unified, bidirectional system for agencies and mariners

2010 GCN AwardsIn 1775, it was enough to hang two lamps in the tower of Boston’s Old North Church to alert Paul Revere and his compatriots of the imminent arrival of British troops by sea.

However, that system is far from adequate today for the Coast Guard, which needs to keep an eye on more than 12,000 miles of coastline and alert Customs and Border Protection officers, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and its commercial maritime partners about security threats, weather conditions, tsunami warnings and waterway closures.

Although the Coast Guard posts vital information on its Homeport website, the service can get data directly into the hands of those who need it and ensure they receive the message with its new Alert and Warning System 2.0.

“We have to notify partners about alerts and threats, but previously we just had one-way communication using phone trees, marine information broadcasts or our website,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ted Kim, chief of the Coast Guard’s Web Portals Branch. “Now we are not just posting data and letting the public figure it out, we are actively pushing the information out to the public.”

USCG Alert and Warning System 2.0

Front row, left to right: Collin Hester, Marcia Medina Castaneda, Mike Ryan, George Ganoung, Ted Kim, Joe Burkot. Second row seated: MichaelDarrel, Theodore Laskey, Jason Mills, Ryan Owens. Third row standing: Michael Scott, Christie Sine, Daniel DiMenna, Robert Hicks, Kelly Kincaid, Jill Sorensen, Darrell Propst.


One-Step Messaging

Under the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, the Coast Guard Captains of the Port are responsible for alerting maritime security changes to mariners. To make it easier for the captains to issue the notifications, the Coast Guard released the first version of AWS in 2007. A government off-the-shelf product, AWS 1.0 did meet the basic notification requirements but had limited functionality. When the contract expired in 2009, the guard put out a request to find a commercial product that offered more than what it had.

“We found something that not only met our needs but, instead of getting something that would service one or two missions, will satisfy other needs, such as continuation of operations and unit recall,” said Joe Burkot, a project officer at the guard's data center in Martinsburg, W.V.

AWS 2.0 is based on AtHoc’s IWSAlerts Web-based alerting system. Kim said AtHoc was selected because it allows the Coast Guard to run a single instance of the software at the data center while captains or other authorized personnel can access the system and issue alerts from any Coast Guard workstation. It also provides a wider array of messaging options from a single input.

“Traditionally, mass notification systems used a more siloed approach and required people to run around and activate multiple systems,” said Dubhe Beinhorn, AtHoc’s vice president of alliances and channels. “We unify all that so they can trigger all the alerts and notifications from one centralized console.”

The best feature is the reporting, which lets the captains know if those messages are received.

“The bidirectional communication capability is what sets this system apart,” Kim said. “It is one thing to for us to just send the alerts, but this allows us to embed an option so the end-user can reply back."

AWS 2.0 runs on a set of three IBM blade servers at the Martinsburg data center. One server is for the alerting software; the other two for the database. The Alert Application Server communicates with the Gateway Server. And the telecom interface works between the AWS application layer and providers of e-mail, Short Message Service, fax and voice services.

There is no software hosted at any of the ports. “We didn’t want to get into distributed computing and have to maintain 20 servers,” Burkot said. Users access it though a Web interface via the Coast Guard’s existing network, known as CGDN+. The data passed between the Coast Guard operator and servers uses Secure Sockets Layer Version 3.0 encryption, but the messages appear in plain text because of the lack of support for encryption in commercial phones and SMS. Recipients need to enter a personal identification number to access voice messages.

The Coast Guard purchased a license that lets it distribute alerts to 50,000 recipients. About half the recipients are people who have registered for alerts though the Homeport website. The others are primarily Coast Guard operations personnel. Headquarters staff members are typically not included. Kim said that although he is responsible for the system, he does not have a license.

There also are at least 250 authorized alert publishers, including staff members at the unit and sector level who are permitted to issue alerts within their areas. Although a variety of devices can receive the alerts, the Coast Guard ensures security by restricting the ability to publish alerts to Coast Guard workstations.

Force Multiplier

The guard used a two-month phased approach to set up AWS 2.0 before it started publishing alerts in December 2009. Setting up the hardware and software was the easy part. The software could be used almost out of the box, though the Coast Guard needed to add some integration and branding to the system. The hardest part was training users. The Coast Guard couldn't afford to fly personnel to all 39 major offices for training, so trainers went to 11 locations and conducted Web training.

“The new software is a lot more intuitive to use than the old system,” Kim said. “But any time you push out new technology, users need some kind of training on it.”

Most of the names were imported from the Homeport database. Publishers of alerts also have the option of entering new recipients into the system. The AdHoc software has APIs that will allow the alerting system to automatically pull user data from other databases, but that function is not fully established.

Kim said he is still exploring all the features of the system, and Coast Guard personnel are already using it to do things they couldn’t have done with the earlier version of AWS.

For example, when the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti in January, the District 7 command in Miami issued a tsunami warning. Three months later, the Coast Guard unit in Hawaii did the same when a magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck near Samoa April 21. Then the Deepwater Horizon oil spill resulted in regular use by the District 8 office in New Orleans, which sent messages to as many as 4,500 internal and external users, keeping them up-to-date on waterway closures.

There are also internal applications that weren’t possible previously. For example, most personnel now have cell phones, so it is easy for a unit commander to issue a personnel recall and get real-time reporting on who is responding.

“The AWS 2.0 system is a force multiplier for us,” Kim said. “The Coast Guard only has about 50,000 people, but if we can leverage our maritime partners and use them as additional eyes and ears for key infrastructure and vessel information, it makes it much easier to accomplish our mission.”

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