Customs asks: Can ports work if computers fail?

The Customs Service will soon switch exclusively to pen and paper at one of its
ports—at least for a day.

The test is to see how a port will function if it does not have computers for a day,
headquarters spokesman Dennis Murphy said.

Interestingly, year 2000 preparation is not the driving force behind the test, although
the result could help with the agency’s year 2000 contingency planning.

Customs more than a year ago began urging its ports to develop contingency plans in
case of power failures, major systems malfunctions or any problem that might make it
impossible to process Customs records electronically.

Now the agency wants to run a surprise test at one of its ports to see if the ports are
ready to operate in a noncomputer environment, Murphy said.

“The only way to see if it works, is to try it,” he said. Earlier this month
Customs had planned a test at the Houston port office, but canceled it after port
personnel voiced concerns.

“We put it off because there were a lot of questions that hadn’t been
addressed,” Murphy said.

Customs will still run a test but probably not in Houston, which is the nation’s
busiest port for handling foreign cargo. “We still want to have some element of
surprise,” Murphy said.

Customs will not turn off any computers to run the test. Instead, personnel at the
selected port will be asked to process paperwork alongside the computer-generated data.

“We have many people who have never had to process paper. They don’t know how
to handle it,” he said. About 95 percent of all Customs collections are handled

Personnel at the Houston port said such a test would slow down the movement of cargo
through the port. But Murphy thinks cargo will move at the same pace as always. What could
be affected is the processing of duties, he said. What takes seconds now might take hours,
he said.

The test is also an opportunity for the trade community to prepare for such a
possibility. Shippers would have to go back to using checks for payment, Murphy said.

Once the processing test is over, if everything runs smoothly, Customs hopes to be able
to tell the port to destroy the paper versions of the files created during the test, he

Will Customs run regular tests at all of its ports to ensure that personnel know how to
handle paper? “I don’t know,” he said. 

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