Coast Guard updates portal to keep pace with Gulf oil spill response

Updated Homeport portal provides information to USGS personnel, maritime partners and the public

The Coast Guard has been updating its Homeport Web portal since the April 20 explosion oF BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig, to provide data on the resulting Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

“We’ve been pretty busy doing different kinds of enhancements,” since receiving a request about two weeks ago from USCG’s District 8, which covers the Gulf of Mexico, said Lt. Comdr. Ted Kim, operations systems manager at USCG headquarters in Washington.

The demand for information on port conditions and response activities in the Gulf led the Coast Guard to stand up a separate information hub site in the dot-com domain on May 1, and 13 alerts on conditions have been sent out over the agency’s Alert Warning System, a system established on the portal to disseminate information on port, coastal and waterway conditions and issues.

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Under the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, the Coast Guard is required to provide timely information to its partners in the nation’s sea ports and in the maritime industry, and to receive feedback from them. “They are the eyes and ears of the Coast Guard,” Kim said.

To that end, the Homeport portal was established in 2004. “Agencies tend to maintain this kind of information internally,” Kim said. “Homeport is the only Coast Guard portal opened up to both internal users and the outside.”

USCG updated the portal’s Alert Warning System in December 2009 with an off-the-shelf platform from AtHoc Inc. called IWSAlerts. It allowed the Coast Guard to continue using the Web interface for alerts but provided better performance and almost unlimited scalability. It now is being used by more than 100 USCG facilities to sent alerts to 50,000 port and industry officials, as well as to Coast Guard personnel.

IWSAlerts uses the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), an XML-based data format for public warning that already is used by a number of public safety agencies, including the Homeland Security Department, National Weather Service and U.S. Geological Survey. CAP allows dissemination of data that can include images, audio and video over multiple channels and systems.

The BP oil spill is not the first emergency the portal has responded to. It has been used in the wake of hurricanes such as Katrina and even the catastrophic Haitian earthquake. Although the January quake did not directly affect U.S. waters, “we used the Homeport and Alert Warning System to alert reservists to stand by, that they could be needed,” he said.

The current emergency is likely to be more long-lasting than previous ones, however. Unlike hurricanes and earthquakes, which can cause devastating damage but pass quickly and allow recovery to begin, the month-old oil spill is not only continuing but conditions are getting worse as estimates of the volume of the spill increase and oil is spreading into currents that could take it into the Atlantic Ocean.

Port operators in the region are updating conditions in local waterways, “so that the public is getting the right information.” The Coast Guard’s New Orleans sector, for instance, issued an alert that its waterways all are open in response to widespread rumors or speculation about the closing of ports in the area.

“This information is critical for maritime transportation systems,” Kim said.

The Coast Guard Research and Development Center in Connecticut is soliciting proposals for the use of innovative technology to be used in the Gulf cleanup effort, and the portal has established a tool to let companies securely submit proprietary information to the center. Under development is a tool to help the center distribute proposals to outside parties for evaluation and collect comments securely.

“That requirement is still being worked on,” Kim said. “These things don’t happen overnight.”

Development work is being done in-house by both USCG personnel and contractors, and so far the IT staff has been able to accommodate requests for updates to the portal.

“But this is unscheduled work,” Kim said. “Right now, everyone is pumped up and willing to help.” But whether conditions will improve any time soon or continue to get worse still is not known.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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