Souped-up alert system spreads the word for Coast Guard

Upgrade enhances the Alert and Warning System while allowing for bidirectional communications

According to the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, the Coast Guard must provide timely information to its partners at the nation’s sea ports and in the maritime industry — and collect feedback from them.

“They are the eyes and ears of the Coast Guard,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ted Kim, operations systems manager at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington.

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To help exchange of information, the Coast Guard developed the Alert and Warning System and integrated it into its Homeport Internet Web portal. The system enables the distribution of local or nationwide alerts about weather conditions, natural disasters, security threats or operational activities via e-mail and phone messages, in addition to text messages to wireless devices.

“It was the first time the Coast Guard had a national notification system,” Kim said. It was a far cry from the radio broadcasts and local phone trees used before AWS. “It was kind of a neat thing,” and it took advantage of the centralized Web resources at the Coast Guard’s West Virginia data center so that no additional software or hardware was required for local commands or ports. “You simply logged in to access the application and sent the alert. It met our needs.”

But as with any first-generation technology, its limitations became apparent as demands on the system expanded. The channels for distributing messages were not keeping up with the rapidly expanding technology, and there was no ability to deliver automated responses to messages from recipients. AWS merely tracked messages that were sent and noted when they were received.

“We wanted to make sure that our partners got it,” Kim said. “That was our primary interest. We didn’t plan on getting immediate feedback” in the first-generation tool.

The Coast Guard faced a major challenge in scaling up the reach, functionality and performance of the system, which was not supported by a vendor and would likely be expensive and cumbersome to expand. The Coast Guard wanted to avoid the limitations of using a proprietary system developed in-house.

“We wanted to go with an industry standard so that it would be scalable,” Kim said. “We wanted something that was widely used. In March of last year, we started looking to see what was out there in the industry.”

In December 2009, the Coast Guard implemented AWS 2.0, built on a commercial platform from AtHoc, called IWSAlerts. It allowed the Coast Guard to continue using the Web interface for alerts but provided better performance and almost unlimited scalability. It is being used by more than 100 Coast Guard facilities to send alerts to 50,000 port and industry officials in addition to Coast Guard personnel.

“We wanted to leverage wireless device functionality” beyond merely sending text messages, Kim said. “We can now embed additional numerical options, such as ‘Press 2 if you need assistance.’ It allows us to do quite a bit of bidirectional communications.”

IWSAlerts uses the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), an Extensible Markup Language-based data format for public warning systems that a number of public safety agencies already use, including the Homeland Security Department, National Weather Service and U.S. Geological Survey. CAP allows dissemination of data, including images, audio and video, via multiple channels and systems. It was adopted as a standard in 2004 by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards.

The CAP standard and ability to handle bidirectional communications sold the Coast Guard on IWSAlerts, said Dubhe Beinhorn, AtHoc vice president of alliances and channels. “That’s what resonated with them.”

Despite its limitations, Beinhorn said the original AWS was a good system. "They were very clever, [but] they realized it wasn’t going to scale to the next generation they wanted.”

IWSAlerts was able to do that with commercial products. Nothing was customized for the Coast Guard implementation, but customers must set up their own alerts and integrate them with distribution lists through Lightweight Directory Access Protocol or Active Directory. The system sends voice messages to landline and cellular phones, in addition to satellite phones and Cisco Systems voice-over-IP phones, via a public switched telephone network. It also can send faxes, e-mail messages and text messages to almost any IP device. Each recipient can specify a preferred channel for communication in the directory.

The enterprise software still resides at the Coast Guard's West Virginia data center, with an additional failover installation. From the headquarters' perspective, it is a centralized system. But local commanders at each of the 16 Coast Guard districts set up their own distribution lists and create canned messages that they can send in addition to event-specific messages.

They have the authority to issue alerts and specify recipients locally, Kim said.

The system can send thousands of alerts at one time in any area, and the number of recipients can be increased with a license upgrade. The Coast Guard began with a 25,000-user license and now has 50,000 users. “We’re looking into extending it more” as the uses for the system grows, Kim said.

Although the AWS mandate under the Maritime Transportation Security Act was intended to enable Coast Guard communication with port and maritime industry officials, the platform's new capabilities have expanded its use.

“We now have two customers,” Kim said. “It is widely used inside the Coast Guard, too,” to communicate with regular and reserve personnel during operations. “We can use it for any mission” to deploy and recall personnel, determine their status and ensure that messages are received. Rather than calling 600 reservists who will be deployed in one district during an emergency, the system can send a single AWS alert to the proper people.

Because the system is standards-based, it is easy to include outside parties, such as state and local law enforcement agencies. Local commanders can add those departments to their notification lists and expand the reach of notifications.

Going with a commercial, standards-based platform helped to expand the functionality and ensure the long-term viability of the Coast Guard's alert system, giving local users the ability to make best use of AWS. “They’re the ones who do it,” Kim said. “We provide the tools.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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