Navy throws sailors LIFElines

Navy throws sailors LIFElines

Web site designed to improve quality of life for naval and Marine forces

By Drew Robb

Special to GCN

It is second nature for a sailor to throw a lifeline to someone who has fallen overboard. That's why the Navy titled its quality-of-life Internet site LIFELines.

More than a static Web site, however, incorporates five telecommunications media'the Internet, Internet simulcasting, satellite broadcasting, teleconferencing and cable television'to keep Navy personnel informed, connected and supplied.

The secretary of the Navy and other senior Defense Department officials recently inaugurated the site as a reinvention of its former QOL program to improve the accessibility and range of information available to naval and Marine forces.

'We deliver a wide range of information and services, using many different media channels,' said Randy Eltringham, originator and first director of the Navy initiative. 'Whenever personnel want the data and no matter the format, we have to make sure it is available.'

Sailors can access quality-of-life information through, which offers links to major news outlets and other Navy sites. Recent news releases and photos have focused on the bombing of the USS Cole.

LIFELines has become an integral part of keeping service members who are away from home in close touch with friends and relatives. One section of the site gives individuals a chance to provide feedback. The response is overwhelmingly positive.

'Great site,' said one sailor serving in Europe. 'Living here in Scotland with no U.S. bases left leaves me cut off from a lot of info. Keep up the good work.'

Doors and stores

LIFELines has the look and organization of a virtual shopping mall, offering many doorways into various sections. The QOL News Center, for example, focuses on people and quality-of-life issues. It offers links to national and local press sites so servicemen and servicewomen can read the latest news about their communities. News is also filtered depending on the viewing audience.

Another new area of the site is the Business Innovations Portal. Here, Navy personnel can buy items online, obtain pharmacy products or schedule medical appointments. Sailors deployed in the Pacific Fleet, for instance, can go online to request leave. Online housing applications will be available within a few months.

Originally, the site was designed like most traditional Web sites. Hypertext Markup Language pages and graphics were only modifiable by the design and development teams. As the information base grew, rapid updates became impossible due to the demands of manually editing individual pages.

'When we reached 20,000 pages, we found the site unmanageable,' Eltringham said. 'We changed to a template format, making it a database-driven, more dynamic site.'

When a graphic, layout or text element is changed, it is altered simultaneously throughout the system. Essentially, the site management software acts as a knowledge management system that tracks all changes or additions, and has built-in electronic approval capabilities. Only those with the required levels of authority can make changes.

The application service provider-based WebEngine, driven by a Microsoft SQL Server back end, was developed by DefenseWeb Technologies of San Diego, to solve large-scale organization informational needs. This technology lets content be easily be updated 24 hours a day, by geographically separated users with no knowledge of HTML or scripting languages, officials said.

To ensure uptime, its Microsoft Windows NT network, as well as SQL server databases are maintained on clustered servers that are dedicated to the delivery of information to online users. Off this main line are developmental servers to create new Web content. Once it is ready for release, content is served up on the multiple public access servers.

More than a source for news stories and frequently asked questions, LIFELines is the central source for quality-of-life information from multiple channels, including on-demand video broadcasting and real-time moderated chats. It customizes information to fit with user bandwidth and offers low-bandwidth versions for wireless and shipboard users as well as high-quality video for those with high-speed connections.

More spot than site

As an integrated communication service, LIFELines is more a gathering spot than a Web site. Videoconferencing, for example, has grown into an integral part of the LIFELines Broadcasting Network, supported by a group of conference centers around the world. It cosponsors teleconferences, such as a monthly financial management seminar to educate members on the basics of money management and planning a sound financial future.

Topical TV shows are also part of its repertoire. As well as the annual Christmas show for deployed troops, LIFELines produces professional programming.

One recent broadcast, hosted by Master Chief Petty Officer James Herdt, consisted of panelists taking questions live from around the world. Subjects covered were personnel issues such as pay, safety, rights, benefits and uniforms. The response overwhelmed phone circuits. LIFELines also uses its multichannel network to deliver self-help information, distance education, crisis assistance and online access to professional QOL service providers and to a full range of transactions.

LIFELines has created partnerships with various federal agencies. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, for example, hires many former military members and, like the Armed Forces, its officers are often in isolated locations. INS runs its own portion of the site, which it pays for at a fraction of what it would cost it to provide such information independently.

Other partners include the Marine Corps, Coast Guard, DOD QOL Executive Committee, surgeon general, Bureau of Naval Personnel and the Supply Systems Command. LIFELines also offers links to various commercial sites.

The Web site has won several awards. The General Services Administration recognized it as 'Best on the World Wide Web,' while the Government Information Technology Services Board's Center of Excellence for IT selected LIFELines as a CEIT 2000 winner for using technology to facilitate the delivery of government services, improving the productivity of government operations and encouraging adoption of proven IT practices.

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