Computers `put coastguard at risk'

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The Independent Online
EXTRA STAFF will deployed by the Coastguard Service for next month's solar eclipse, after repeated "teething problems" in getting its computer system ready for 2000.

Up to 500,000 people are expected to be watching the darkening skies from boats off the coast of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset on 11 August, the day of the solar eclipse, dramatically increasing the coastguards' potential workload.

A senior officer had warned that "lives could be put at risk" due to "serious operational flaws" in the upgrade to the service's nationwide computer system, fears which forced the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to implement a contingency plan in case the system fails .

But the attempts to upgrade the MCA's "Action Data System", or Adas, to handle the millennium bug have left it prone to crashing. The MCA said yesterday that the problems had emerged during an upgrade to a newer version of a Microsoft operating system.

The Adas software runs on computers in coastguard stations around Britain's coastline. It automatically logs the time and contents of distress calls noted by coastguards, and makes the details available via a computer "server" to other stations around the coast.

If it fails - as has happened recently during the installation of the new versions of software - then coastguards have to use manual systems. The upgrade was ordered earlier this year.

Richard Day, senior coastguard in the West Country region, has warned the MCA's chief executive Maurice Storey that the electronic tracking system might not be able to cope with demands during the eclipse. In a letter expressing his concern, he wrote: "If things remain as they are, then I am unable to meet the requirements of the agency in this period. Serious operational flaws have come to light on the system, all of which have been reported to HQ, but there appears to be no resolution in sight. Unless some priority is given to the rectification of these known defects, we will end up with a crisis on our hands in August."

The MCA said that it had answered Mr Day's worries and that necessary action was being taken.

In a statement, the MCA said: "It is true that there have been problems with the new hardware and extra resources are now being brought in to iron out these problems and ensure that all our stations are millennium compliant.

"In the case of those stations involved in the eclipse, on-site support will be on hand to deal with any problems. It should be noted that the coastguard regularly exercises without electronic systems to take into account power losses and has confirmed plans to deal with any unforeseen difficulties."

Installation of the updated computer system is due to completed in September but the MCA insisted that coastguards would be able to carry out a full search and rescue operation "in any circumstances".

The Government's New Technology Fiasco

THESE ARE some of the recent computer fiascos:

The Student Loans Company:. System to calculate student payments wrongly set up in 1990. Public Accounts Committee said consultants Price Waterhouse got the job in haste. Desperately late paying students' grants.

Cost: pounds 9.9m to set up, with pounds 1m excess, and pounds 11m in running costs.

The Immigration and Nationality Directorate: Contractor is Siemens. Backlog in asylum pleas blamed on new computers.

Cost: Siemens fined pounds 4.5m on pounds 100m contract.

"Red Boxes": Replacing physical ones for ministers with laptop computers. Idea dropped after the system proved unwieldy.

Cost: Tens of thousands of pounds.

The National Air Traffic Services: New control centre at Swanwick in Hampshire. Six years late two more to go, again computer problems. Installer Lockheed Martin.

Cost: pounds 623m, including pounds 300m overspend.

The National Insurance Recording System: Launched in July 1998 to "streamline" benefits, but 17 months late. Suffered "massive breakdown" in September 1998 leading to the pounds 150m system paying out money without ensuring claimants were entitled.

Cost: Up to pounds 10m in faulty payments which legally could not be recovered.

The Passport Office: pounds 230m contract awarded to Siemens to use digital scanning for increased security and reduced application time. Waits doubled, then tripled.

Cost: Enormous lost time, frayed tempers, and reputations. Siemens penalised just pounds 126,000 (in payments withheld per passport).

CRIS: Criminal Information System, developed for the Metropolitan Police by EDS. Planned in 1983 and delivered four years late in 1996.

Cost: pounds 20m, about pounds 3m over plan.

Trawlerman: A Ministry of Defence (MoD) system to handle classified information. Approved in 1988 but not delivered until 1993 (two years late) and not ready until 1995, when it was immediately scrapped.

Cost: pounds 40m.

MoD Profs: An office system again for the MoD. The terminals became the victim of hyper-inflation, effectively costing pounds 38,000 each, when their equivalent could be bought in the high street for pounds 1,000.

Cost: pounds 380m, pounds 130m over budget.

The Operational Strategy: A project to computerise entirely the Department of Social Security - described as "the biggest and most complex computerisation programme in Europe". Completed in 1988, and eventually a success - but at a price.

Cost: pounds 2.6bn, compared to its planned estimate of just pounds 713m.