Mariner Rescue Program Price Soars; Coast Guard Seeks $1 Billion

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Byline: Jennifer Haberkorn, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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 911 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. …