- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2008

A communications program aimed at tracking mariners in distress at sea and originally priced at $730 million is now going to cost more than $1 billion and will be completed six years later than planned, the U.S. Coast Guard said Friday.

Rescue 21, essentially the sea equivalent of a 9-1-1 system, is a vital, life-saving program that needs funding , stressed Rear Adm. Gary T. Blore, assistant commandant for acquisition at the Coast Guard, in a conference call with reporters.

Adm. Blore attributed the cost overruns to miscalculations of the geographic challenges in extending the program to Alaska, as well as inflation.

“Alaska is a very challenging environment,” he said.

The $730 million contract for the program was awarded to General Dynamics C4 Systems in September 2002 and completion was scheduled for 2011. It will now cost just over $1 billion and won’t be done until 2017.

Adm. Blore listed problems such as the short construction season in Alaska - work can be done in the mountains for only about three months of the year - as well as poor existing infrastructure in rural areas, which means the company will have to build roads and install generators and Internet access to set up call towers.

The Coast Guard said the cost overruns are not General Dynamic’s fault but the service is taking over the Alaska portion of the project. The Coast Guard is more familiar with the Alaskan geography and it is cheaper to do the work themselves than contract it out, Adm. Blore said.

Rescue 21 replaces the aging National Distress Response System (NDRS), which was installed during the 1970s. The new program allows tower directors, using global-positioning-system technology, to see callers’ location on an interactive map. It’s designed to pick up radio distress calls within 2 degrees and is far better than relying on callers to identify their location themselves, which can be tough for inexperienced mariners in distress.

It also cuts down on hoaxes because the Coast Guard tower can read that the call is coming from land.

“You’re burning a lot less diesel and a lot less jet fuel,” Adm. Blore said. “And if your line of bearing is downtown Boston … it’s probably telling you it’s not a real [Coast Guard] distress call.”

There were early software bugs in Rescue 21 that delayed the program, but the Coast Guard said those problems have been fixed.

Still, Congress is expected to be unhappy about another Coast Guard program facing cost overruns after budget issues with the service’s Deepwater acquisition project.

“This is yet another Coast Guard program that is behind schedule and over budget,” said Rep. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“Our committee will look into the delays and cost overruns to ensure that taxpayers get the best value for their investment and to make sure the program gets implemented in a timely manner so the Coast Guard can fulfill its most important mission - saving lives.”

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and chairman of the Coast Guard subcommittee, said he was “very concerned” about the program, adding that “on top of the fact that this system is years behind schedule and does not even cover the entire United States, the Coast Guard is now anticipating additional cost increases for Rescue 21.”

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmed it was notified of the new figures earlier this week, but declined to comment further.

Adm. Blore said Coast Guard doesn’t need the funding for another two years, but gave lawmakers early notice so “we can have a long and constructive discussion with Congress.”

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard touted the early success of Rescue 21.

Last month, a 78-year-old boater in Florida was forced to his life raft after his boat started taking on water. He sent a distress signal over a marine radio, but misread his location. Rescue 21, which is already installed in Florida, showed a different location. The Coast Guard found and rescued him at the location identified by Rescue 21.

The Boat Owners Association of the United States, called “BoatU.S.,” says the program is a “huge improvement to the Coast Guard’s search and rescue capability.”

The program, which first was rolled out in 2005, is now in place over 15,000 miles of U.S. coastline . When it is completed, Rescue 21 will reach the entire U.S. coastline out to 20 nautical miles.

In the Mid-Atlantic states, Rescue 21 has been operational in Baltimore since May , Hampton Roads area since February and Delaware Bay region since late 2007. It is expected to be completed in the continental Untied States by 2012.

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