Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Very Model of a Modern Mobile Admiral

Admiral Thad W. Allen is a Webby guy. The commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard is on Facebook. He blogs, he tweets, he podcasts. And he carries around a coffee mug.

The admiral explained how and why online communications is changing the seafaring business in a recent interview with gCaptain, a Web site for maritime professionals. While much of the discussion was technical, given the audience, Allen also made broader points about why shipping may have been a late-adopter compared to other, less tradition-bound transportation sectors.

Here's an except from gCaptain editor John Konrad's interview with Allen:

"...What I try to do is compare and contrast the aviation community with the sea-going community. The aviation industry is a product of the 20th century. Because there was such a premium placed on safety, with many passenger and cargo flight incidents early on, our air traffic control system is now one of the safest and most transparent operations that you will see anywhere. Pilots are used to being given commands to go from point A to point B and cleared for a specific altitude, then cleared for final and cleared to land. That type of control in the maritime environment is something no one has ever seen and will probably take some getting use to.

"For a thousand years we have operated on the water where anonymity was a proprietary advantage, you didn't want anyone to know where you were going based on what goods you were carrying or what the markets were doing. The fact is that modern economics is driving us in a direction, not solely because of safety and security, but as a profit motive for visibility of the supply chain. Business managers want to know, anywhere in the world, the location of a container and this information is not possible without knowing the location of the vessel carrying it.

"So I think we are being pressed this way for economics but on the safety and security side the automation of our vessels and its sensors makes it possible to be anywhere on the ship and understand the entire operation. The days of wipers, oilers and engineering officers making rounds is rapidly disappearing. For example, I've made the comment that our new national security cutter, the Bertholf, is really a computer with a ship attached.

"I am not sure it's a matter of everyone having to change. I think it's a new environment and operators have to realize this or be overtaken."

(Coast Guard photo above by Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas McKenzie.)

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