To rectify that, Owens says the USCG is getting more creative about how to spread the word in a cost-effective way. One solution is to involve the Coast Guard Auxiliary, civilian volunteers who do boating safety education and inspections for small boat owners. The volunteers have embraced the AWW and help to market the program.
The USCG has also tapped the 40,000-member-strong United States Power Squadrons to get the word out about AWW and to educate boaters to report suspicious activity. The squadron is a volunteer organization devoted to boating safety, education, and instruction. In an effort to reach even more boaters, both the USCG and its auxiliary group have ratcheted up their attendance at boat shows and marina events across the country. The groups are also leveraging social media, aggressively using Twitter and Facebook.
These activities have increased the number of annual AWW calls dramatically. Between 2007 and 2009, the USCG response center received only 2,889 calls. In 2010, the call volume exploded to nearly 26,700 calls, an increase of 824 percent over the previous three years combined. “Our thinking is that the social media campaign, plus the excellent work provided by our CG Auxiliarists…contributed to this jump in calls,” explains Owens.
Despite the progress made in leveraging free resources, the lack of funding has an effect on how well AWW gets marketed. “It’s been difficult to put forward a comprehensive mass media campaign in this budget environment,” Owens says. John Fetterman, law enforcement director of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA), says that he is still “routinely disappointed” at the public’s awareness of the program.
More important than lack of awareness about the program are criticisms about how the program is administered. The DHS IG report noted that the USCG did not track the AWW phone calls handled by its National Response Center, concluding that “the Coast Guard is unable to determine the overall effectiveness” of the AWW program. The calls were investigated, Owens says. But no database of outcomes was developed.
Raynor Tsuneyoshi, national programs director for the United States Power Squadrons, voiced a similar critique. He says that people who took the time to report suspicious activity to the USCG never heard back from the agency. There was no two-way communication, says Tsuneyoshi, who believes that lack of feedback could hurt the program’s popularity and growth.