By Trudy Walsh, GCN Staff
As an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard, one of Lt. Cmdr. Chris Kluckhuhn's jobs was to log information about vessels he sighted off Cape Cod, Mass.
Kluckhuhn and his crew jotted information about the vessels on scraps of paper. Then they entered the information into the Coast Guard's Maritime Information for Safety and Law Enforcement (MISLE) system, which Kluckhuhn described as a "huge, Web-based database application that wasn't built with the field user in mind, in my opinion."
The United States also requires that all merchant vessels notify the Coast Guard of their intention to enter the country 96 hours in advance of arrival.
"I'd ask the vessels right-of-approach questions — the standard international questions of ‘Where are you headed?' and ‘What was your last port of call?'" Kluckhuhn said. "They have to report their port of call and verify that what's on board is not a threat."
But there was no way to confirm what the vessels reported. A ship could say it was headed to Portland, Maine, and then head toward New York. "That's a red flag," Kluckhuhn said.
He said he thought the paper-based, unverifiable system was not acceptable in a post-Sept. 11 world. "I knew we needed a better system, and I was committed to getting it implemented," he said.
Without funding, staff, authority or approval, Kluckhuhn set out to develop a system that would exchange information easily and accurately between Coast Guard aviation crews and the Web-based MISLE.
He needed a system with a searchable database that could flag suspicious activity. Kluckhuhn worked with several teams at the National Graduate School in Cape Cod and a group of programmers at the Coast Guard's Operations Systems Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.
"We basically hijacked an application built for Coast Guard boarding officers," he said.
Dubbed MISLE Lite, the system went through 156 iterations in 18 months before it was finalized. The earliest versions of MISLE Lite, which came out in 2002, ran on personal digital assistants, "but they didn't have enough horsepower back then," Kluckhuhn said. Now the system runs on tablet PCs on a Microsoft Windows CE platform.
Using unapproved computers with unapproved software, the Coast Guard Air Station Cape Code tested MISLE Lite and demonstrated its operational requirements and benefits and documented the savings, Kluckhuhn said.
With proof of the system's success in hand, Kluckhuhn went to Coast Guard headquarters in Washington to ask if the top brass would be willing to support and expand the system.
Suitably impressed, the brass gave MISLE Lite the go-ahead. The system that had been built furtively in the shadows would soon see the light of day.
Kluckhuhn worked with another team of programmers — led by Bob DeYoung, Bill Saunders, Bill Balsineer and George Kaufman — to make MISLE Lite official. The system was formally implemented in all Coast Guard aircraft in 2006.
Now it takes about 15 seconds to type vessel-sighting information into MISLE Lite. The system can even differentiate between vessels with the same name. "It will say, ‘There are 15 vessels with the same name, so get me the hull number,'" Kluckhuhn said. "So instead of data-entry mode, we're in data-verification mode."
Kluckhuhn's vision paid off. In 2006, using MISLE Lite before it received official approval, the Cape Cod air station recorded almost 50 percent of all Coast Guard vessel sightings that year.
Kluckhuhn and MISLE Lite garnered a remarkable amount of grass-roots support from Coast Guard employees, who donated thousands of hours to the project. Procurement specialists worked extra hours to make sure the project received equipment.
Secretaries found extra time to fill out travel orders and squeeze meetings about the project into their supervisors' schedules. Programmers did much of the programming on their own time.
Kluckhuhn's colleagues spoke of his courage and desire to do the right thing, even at some cost to his security.
"Chris' commitment to integrity and unwillingness to yield to expediency on matters of importance make him a rare officer indeed," said Bill Imle, a Coast Guard mission-planning platform manager.
Kluckhuhn is "an incredibly gifted technologist, but his gifts go much beyond that," said Geoff Abbott, a retired Coast Guard captain.
Kluckhuhn also traveled to the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 to help first responders. He brought 30 ruggedized computers and Portable Flight Planning Software based on the Georgia Institute of Technology's FalconView mapping software. Based on his use of that software, the Homeland Security Department has begun extending it throughout the department.
Kluckhuhn admits to upsetting some apple carts. But to support his fellow Coasties and keep the coastlines safe, he'd do it all again in a heartbeat.