Program at nation's major ports tests ways to secure containers

'Nobody has found a replacement for a caveman with a big club who stays up all night by the fire. You still need that.'

'The port of seattle's Mick Shultz

Brand X Pictures

While Seattle sleeps, port officials in Puget Sound are on their second cup of double-jolt espresso, working to keep cargo safe in the nation's third-largest center for containerized imports and exports.

Homeland security officials agree that one of the weakest links in the transportation system is container shipments. Security gaps could leave the more than 7 million cargo containers that arrive in the United States each year vulnerable to being used illegally to transport drugs, people or weapons.

In an attempt to close this gap, last year the Homeland Security Department earmarked $58 million for Operation Safe Commerce, a pilot program to prompt research and development of technology to ensure the security of containers through the supply chain.

Three port areas, the nation's largest container load centers, were chosen for the project. The three Operation Safe Commerce ports'Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.; Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif.; and the Port Authority of New York-New Jersey'handle about 70 percent of the nation's containerized cargo.

Operation Safe Commerce isn't so much about the physical security of the ports, said Mick Shultz, spokesman for the Port of Seattle. It's about finding a way to protect the cargo while it's in transit.

'That's where the real ballgame is,' Shultz said. 'You can put a thousand soldiers around a marine terminal, but they can't help you if there is something deadly in the cargo,' he said. 'If you want to secure the economy, secure the supply chain.'

Physical security needed

A wide range of information technologies will be tested in the nine projects that constitute the Washington portion of Operation Safe Commerce, Shultz said. 'But nobody yet has found a replacement for a caveman with a big club who stays up all night by the fire,' he said. 'You still need that.' Cargo security still involves a carefully monitored chain of physical processes, some controlled by punch card procedures.

The Puget Sound ports in Washington received $27.9 million for the pilot projects, said Jim Serrill, director of seaport security for the Port of Seattle. Some of the technologies being tested include intrusion detection, container sealing and Global Positioning System products, Serrill said.

Each of the nine projects has five or six workers on a team, said Barry Wilkins, director of global supply chain security practice for Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations of Parsippany, N.J., which is the project manager for the Puget Sound ports.

A team typically includes a shipper, an ocean carrier, a manufacturer, a terminal at the port of origin and a systems integrator, typically a major defense contractor, Wilkins said. These include Science Applications Internation Corp.; System Planning Corp. of Arlington, Va.; Maersk of Copenhagen, Denmark; BV Solutions Group Inc. of Overland Park, Kan.; Unisys Corp.; Innovative Logistics Techniques Inc. of McLean, Va.; and the Tioga Group of Philadelphia.

As the project unfolds, Operation Safe Commerce is revealing the importance of developing a fairly complex underlying infrastructure and communication system, Wilkins said.

For example, intrusion detection devices to detect light, radiation, and biological and chemical elements are usually put inside containers, Wilkins said. Electronic seals or other devices that can communicate with these detectors are usually on the outside of the containers.

Data from these devices is transmitted to a supply chain event management system. Workers respond to any anomalies reported through the system according to protocols that port officials have established, Wilkins said. 'If the alarm goes off, somebody has to do something about it.'

Federal involvement

The supply chain event management system also has to communicate with the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection Bureau, Wilkins said. 'This system will be the glue that will put this all together,' he said.

Shultz said the projects should be completed by the end of August, and port officials are expected to submit a report to the Transportation Security Administration by the end of October.

The overriding goal of Operation Safe Commerce is to establish and determine best practices, policies and procedures for safe shipping that use technology, said Mike Wasem, communications manager of the Port of Tacoma. Another goal is to develop practices that can be adopted as the basis for an international standard for safe containerized shipping.

'Because shipping involves foreign trade partners, we can't tell them unilaterally 'This is how it's going to be,' ' he said.

Once in place, the standards will not only enhance security, but will increase the efficient flow of trade. 'It could mean better prices for Wal-Mart shoppers as well as safer cargo,' Wasem said.
Every day, thousands of boxes move across the Pacific. Operation Safe Commerce will examine 'every vulnerability, every step from the carpet weaver in Bangladesh to the warehouse in Chicago,' he said. Every point along the way is being prodded, poked and tested.

The amount of containerized shipping to and from the Pacific coast is expected to double within 12 years, Wasem said.

GCN staff writer Mary Mosquera contributed to this story.

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