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Maritime Messages

​AFTER 9-11, Congress approved the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002. The law requires that the U.S. Coast Guard communicate maritime security (MARSEC) changes to port captains and other maritime officials via a “broadcast notice.” The directive seemed simple, but the available systems, one of which the Coast Guard deployed in 2004, were slow and couldn’t keep pace with use of mobile devices and other workplace innovations. When the contract was up with the original provider in 2009, the Coast Guard sought other solutions. It found an electronic system that can send messages via telephone, mobile devices, e-mail, and fax. The system can also be expanded easily to convey routine information.

When the search for a new system began, Lieutenant Commander Ted Kim of the Coast Guard had many different concerns, “but the main problem was that the current system did not have the flexibility we were looking for,” he says. According to Kim, the Coast Guard had originally wanted to use the system not only to send notifications of MARSEC changes but also for nonemergency communications. Instead, the Coast Guard ended up having to use two systems.

Kim began looking for a new system at the beginning of 2009, with an eye toward having a notification system up and running by the end of the year when the contract on the old system expired. Following the typical government contracting process that included market research, evaluation, and a request for proposals, Kim narrowed the field to seven companies and, after demonstrations, to three. He then reevaluated the finalists, focusing on cost, performance, availability, and functionality.

The winner was the IWS Alerts system from AtHoc of San Mateo, California. “The AtHoc system had all of the factors we were looking for,” says Kim. “It is functional, flexible, and scalable. We purchased a license for 50,000 users, and we can always purchase more if we grow out of the system.”

To use the IWS Alerts program, a Coast Guard operator logs into the system using AtHoc’s software, which connects via the Internet to the Coast Guard’s servers. All transmissions are encrypted.  The operator enters the alert message, which is sent to the appropriate people depending on the nature of the communication. If the message is sensitive, the system may require users to enter a password or PIN to read it.

Another feature of the system is that the message continues to be sent until acknowledged by the recipient. This feature not only ensures that the message is received, but it also helps keep track of personnel during a crisis.

Depending on the emergency or issue, the messages can be sent in different ways. For example, communications can be sent over e-mail, text, cell phone, telephone, or fax machine.

The system also allows the Coast Guard to group users into categories, such as all port security officers who work at the same port or all captains in a certain region. Then alerts can be customized and sent only to specific groups. “A general homeland security threat would go to all captains, while port-specific issues go to certain personnel only at that port,” says Kim.

Since the Coast Guard can send bulk messages to targeted groups of maritime partners and stakeholders, users receive only relevant information. For example, port and ship operators, port security officers, and Customs officers would get the MARSEC alert so that they can be notified of the change in MARSEC level as required by law. (There are three MARSEC levels, which are altered by the Coast Guard based on information from the Department of Homeland Security.) “If an alert goes out saying ‘Baltimore is at MARSEC 2,’ our port partners know what that means and can act accordingly,” says Kim. “There’s no need to elaborate.”

To ensure that only authorized personnel receive the alerts, port personnel who sign up are vetted by the Coast Guard, which funds the system.

While AtHoc can host the service via the cloud, the Coast Guard opted to buy licenses to use the company’s software but host the system on government servers. Cost was a major factor in the decision and security was another. “According to government regulations, we have to verify the security of our systems. This does not necessarily mean we have to host the technology, but since we already had the infrastructure and personnel in place, it was easier for us to host the system ourselves,” says Kim.

Before the system could go live however, Kim had to implement a training program for operators. Training is important when launching any new system, according to Kim, but the notification system called for extra care. “If you don’t properly train the operators, they could send alerts that could cause a panic or give the wrong information,” says Kim. “We had to teach operators to send out unambiguous, accurate statements.”

The Coast Guard used a train-the-trainer program by bringing AtHoc personnel to the agency’s training center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. After key Coast Guard personnel were trained there, those key personnel then traveled around the country to train other employees. After the training program was complete, AtHoc hosted a live Web training module as a follow-up.

The system has been operational for a little over a year and has been used several times. In the late spring of 2010, the Coast Guard used the service to clear up misunderstandings brought about by media coverage of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. “There was a lot of conflicting information about waterway closures,” says Kim. “So, we used the system to set the matter straight. We would let ports know that certain waterways were open, and that information would then be conveyed by port officials to local businesses and residents.”

In April 2011, the system was used to alert port operators about tsunami activity after earthquakes hit Japan. “We sent messages to port captains on the West Coast and in Hawaii telling them that tsunami warnings had been issued and that certain specific measures should be taken,” says Kim.

Kim and his team were aware that such alerts must provide meaningful additional intelligence, not just repeat information available in the news. “We reached out to thousands of people and provided useful information to those who needed to know,” he says. “This is critical. If the alerts aren’t targeted, people will start ignoring them.”