Port protection becomes high-tech

Today's James Bond uses `sniffer' to `smell' bombs, device to read fingerprints

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

As technology catches up with America's new security needs, those charged with protecting the vast waterfronts of 361 U.S. ports and billions of tons of cargo are being presented with a dizzying array of anti-terrorism gadgetry that their makers insist can do better than a fence and a guard.

And with lives and global commerce on the line, many ports are at least exploring what is available.

Experts say this James Bond-style equipment is still evolving. Most of it carries hefty price tags, companies acknowledge. And despite sweeping new security rules for ports and ships recently imposed by domestic and foreign governments, there are no standards or guidelines for what to buy.

There also is a lot out there: Sonar to detect movement underwater near a ship; "smart" cameras that zero in on intruders; biometric readers that can identify fingerprints on contact. There are also such things as "sniffers" in the works that can "smell" the presence of chemical weapons.

"Most seaports are giant economic engines, they're vital to the military and they're very spread out, so we're going to have to start looking at technology for security," said Jay Grant, director of the Port Security Council of America, an industry group that seeks funds for marine facilities.

For the most part, Grant said the public and private facilities and ships that need protecting have not invested heavily in technology because the funds haven't been available. The average port could spend $3 million just on traditional fencing, he said.

The Coast Guard puts the minimum cost for securing ports and ships at $7 billion, which Grant labels a conservative number that aims to cover minimal items such as fences, lights, cameras and security guards.

So far, the federal Department of Homeland Security has handed out about $500 million in grants, although another round of funding is expected soon.

Ports investigating high-tech equipment include Baltimore, where officials hope to install fencing equipped with fiber optics that can detect when someone is trying to improperly enter.

The Port of Virginia - Norfolk, Newport News, Portsmouth and Front Royal - has been among the first to purchase a $100,000 radiation isotope identification device to scan trucks and containers for bombs.

Other ports have made investments in a variety of products. Here are some of the devices employed for commercial and military use on the waterfront:

CompuDyne Corp.'s Waterside Sentry System uses radar and sonar technology aboard ships to detect a seaborne threat from up to 50 miles away. It can automatically alert the Coast Guard or other defense agency.

An alarm is sounded and closed-circuit television cameras equipped with thermal imaging for nighttime can locate and track the potential threat and send the information and pictures to authorities.

The system was developed by CompuDyne's Quanta Systems division in Gaithersburg after the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. It's being used aboard Navy ships and other government vessels. The system has sparked interest from commercial users, such as sea-based oil rigs, cargo vessels and cruise lines, said Philip M. Blackmon, president and chief executive of Quanta Systems.

"By using electronic monitoring, you overcome the human error factor," he said. "People get fatigued and distracted, systems do not."

VistaScape Security Systems' Security Data Management System relies on surveillance cameras mounted around a port facility.

The software is set up to identify security violations, which are defined by a specific port and can be changed with local or national threat levels. A monitor will show actual pictures of a threatening boat or person. And to depict speed and direction, icons dot the screen like a Pac-Man.

The Atlanta company's system, launched in 2002, was recently purchased by a port facility in San Diego, paid for with part of a $2.12 million federal grant. The system can be used at airports, chemical facilities, national borders, energy substations and pipelines, according to Glenn McGonnigle, the company's chief executive.

"In the past couple of years, we've seen quite a rise in both motivation and financial resources to take action," he said.

Datastrip Inc.'s hand-held biometric identity document reader is capable of decoding fingerprints, text and photographs with one look at a document such as a driver's license, passport or company identification card presented by a seafarer boarding a ship.

The readers can verify a person's identity, or flag a person on a government watch list, through a fingerprint or specific information embedded in a bar code, a driver's license or other form of identification.

It's now used by the Liberian International Ship & Corporate Registry, responsible for tracking 500,000 active seafarers on 2,000 Liberian-flagged vessels. Some U.S. petrochemical facilities also use it.

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