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Technology plays key role at Coast Guard center

April 01, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Computers are the answer to the question: What in the world is the Coast Guard doing in Martinsburg, W.Va., where the closest employees come to the ocean is viewing paintings of ships on the walls?

Opening the facility to reporters on Monday, Coast Guard officials showed off some of the systems being used to help keep track of ships, protect ports and aid in defense efforts.

One such computer system is the National Vessel Movement Center, housed in three small rooms.

Started after the Sept. 11 attacks, the National Vessel Movement Center tracks all ships that weigh 300 gross tons or more. Ships must report 96 hours in advance if they plan to enter any of the United States' 361 ports. Most ships e-mail that information, said Capt. Jim Decker.

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Anna Sedlon, functional area manager, said that on an average day, 600 to 700 reports come in, including updates. Along with destination, a ship must report its crew and cargo to one of the 30 employees staffing the center 24 hours a day, every day of the year, Sedlon said.

Before Sept. 11, such data was reported to pertinent port captains. Then, ships only had to give 24 hours notice that they planned to enter a U.S. port, Sedlon said.

Keeping track of such ships is one of many duties of the employees at the Coast Guard facility, off W.Va. 9 east of Martinsburg. Classified as a government-owned but contractor-operated facility, 82 percent of the center's employees are contractors, while 9 percent are federal civilians and 9 percent are members of the military, according to officials.

Building a large information center such as the National Vessel Movement Center, or NVMC, which is part of the Ship Arrival Notification System, often can take years. After Sept. 11, employees in Martinsburg built the NVMC in three weeks, Decker said.

As for the war in Iraq, nothing being done in Martinsburg directly affects it. Employees gather data, they do not interpret it or monitor radio transmissions, Decker said.

However, information gathered here is used by military members who are involved in the war effort, Bowen said.

A Lanham, Md.-based company, QSS Group Inc., has a four-year contract to operate and change, if needed, most of the computer systems at the center. QSS employs 207 people, said Contract Program Manager Bill Bowen.

Leading a tour group through the normally restricted, climate-controlled computer room, Mike Scott showed off hundreds of tapes, dozens of servers and a few monitors. Scott is the center's information systems technology division chief.

In a nearby, dark room, employees sat in front of computer terminals, working with the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue (AMVER) system.

Giving a demonstration, System Administrator Darrell Propst typed in a spot in the ocean using latitude and longitude. On his computer screen, the spot - meant to signify a ship in trouble - was marked with a cross, and two concentric circles marked the locations of about a dozen ships.

Should a vessel be in distress, Coast Guard members could quickly send a broadcast to nearby ships that might be able to render aid, Propst said.

The idea of AMVER was born from the Titanic disaster, but only plausible with the advent of computer technology, according to AMVER's Web site. Currently, around 12,000 ships from more than 140 nations participate in AMVER.

Opened in 1991, the Coast Guard facility moved to Martinsburg from its former New York home.

"We love it here," Decker said.

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