As world's ships arrive in port, new security for smooth sailing

July 01, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

The most sweeping security overhaul in maritime history takes effect today at the world's ports, including Baltimore, where high-tech identification devices, miles of fencing and other measures have been installed in response to terrorism's enlarged shadow.

New federal rules, costing billions of dollars and untold man-hours, require 361 ports nationwide and the ships that use them to implement their own security plans. International rules that take effect at the same time will affect nearly all of the world's ocean commerce.

Maritime experts say the efforts will go a long way toward preventing terrorists from slipping in weapons or bombs with the nearly 6 billion tons of goods shipped each year by sea - even if no one is sure how much of the preparation has been completed by today's deadline.

"You can paralyze yourself thinking about all that can go wrong," said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Curt Springer, who is in charge of the security effort in the upper Chesapeake Bay area. "Instead, we're focusing on a plan. And at the end of the day, we'll be safer because of it."

Efforts have been under way since the terrorist attacks 2 1/2 years ago to protect what have been viewed by security experts as vulnerable entry points to American soil. The national and international rules - the U.S. Maritime Transportation Security Act and the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code - were enacted in 2002.

U.S. airports, more visible and accessible to the public, received the initial focus on security improvements - and more than $3 billion so far.

Billions to protect ports

The Coast Guard has estimated the cost of protecting U.S. seaports at more than $7 billion over time, with $424 million granted so far to public and private ports and vessels. Another round of funding is expected soon.

Gates and guards have long been the norm at U.S. ports, though officials acknowledge that identification was not always checked. Public facilities at the port of Baltimore, for example, now have a "zero tolerance" policy that restricts visits to those who have made appointments 24 hours ahead. Workers must have proper identification.

"We've done a lot since 9/11," said James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees public facilities at the port of Baltimore. "Prior to 9/11, if you had a friendly wave, all you had to do was wave at most port facilities to walk in."

His security plan calls for $14 million to be spent in the near future on security - $4 million out of the port administration's budget and about $10 million in federal and state grants. Improvements include new fencing equipped with fiber-optic cable. If the fence is disturbed, cameras will focus there.

White expects that other than the security mandate, the port will give the appearance of business as usual today: Cargo will be off-loaded from ships flying flags from such places as Singapore, Panama and Europe. The slow-moving behemoths will slide into local berths with the aid of tugboats. Multistory cranes and crews of longshoremen will clear their decks and hulls of containers full of food and apparel, luxury automobiles and pallets of paper.

An eye on the world

About 700 people have been assigned by the Coast Guard to check the work of White and others nationwide, including inspections of each U.S. port facility and ship. Ports that do not have adequate fencing, gates, lighting and cameras, and ships without proper tracking of schedules and crews could be fined or shut down.

International vessels not certified as secure by 147 participating nations, and not reinspected by U.S. officials, could be prevented from docking at American ports.

Each nation is responsible for certifying its own ports - some 7,000 of them - but the U.S. Coast Guard plans to send representatives overseas to check out their work.

While there is a risk to the world economy if ships are not allowed to sail from those ports or deliver their cargo, experts do not foresee a catastrophic halting of commerce. Foreign and domestic officials are working overtime to certify vessels.

Still, experts say that many foreign ports won't meet today's deadline. As of last week, 32 percent were officially compliant, according to the latest figures from the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency tracking the efforts.

Rear Adm. Larry Hereth, the Coast Guard's director of port security, said that of the 8,000 foreign ships that call on the United States each year, about 85 percent have been certified by their home countries, but he won't know how many foreign ports meet requirements until the deadline.

Ships certified at home still must be boarded by the Coast Guard for inspection here. That could cause delays.

"With only 18 months to prepare, and with many countries in the developing world only having heard of the code in the past six months, you have a tremendous amount of anxiety," said Kim Petersen, executive director of the Maritime Security Council, an industry group.

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