Program tests ways to secure cargo

DHS earmarks $58 million for Operation Safe Commerce

While Seattle sleeps, port officials in Puget Sound are on their second cup of double-jolt espresso, keeping 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.

To close this gap, the Homeland Security Department last year earmarked $58 million for Operation Safe Commerce, a pilot program to spur deployment of technologies for ensuring containers' security as they move through the supply chain.

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

Operation Safe Commerce isn't as much about physical security of the ports as it is about finding a way to protect the cargo while it's in transit.

"If you want to secure the economy, secure the supply chain," said Mick Shultz, spokesman for the Port of Seattle. "You can put 1,000 soldiers around a marine terminal, but they can't help you if there is something deadly in the cargo."

A wide range of information technologies will be tested in the nine projects that constitute the Washington portion of Operation Safe Commerce, Shultz said.

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 Inc. of Parsippany, N.J., which is project manager for the Puget Sound ports.

A typical team includes a shipper, an ocean carrier, a manufacturer, a terminal at the port of origin and a systems integrator, usually a major defense contractor, Wilkins said.

The latter include Science Applications International Corp., San Diego; System Planning Corp., Arlington, Va.; Maersk, Copenhagen, Denmark; BV Solutions Group Inc., Overland Park, Kan.; Unisys Corp., Blue Bell, Pa.; Innovative Logistics Techniques Inc., McLean, Va.; and the Tioga Group, 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 catch light, radiation and biological and chemical elements usually are put inside containers, Wilkins said. Electronic seals or other devices that can communicate with these detectors are on the outside.

Data from these devices is transmitted to a supply chain event management system. Workers respond to 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," he said.

The supply chain event management system also must 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 overarching 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 also 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.

Government Computer News Staff Writer Trudy Walsh can be reached at twalsh@postnewsweektech.com. GCN Staff Writer Mary Mosquera contributed to this story.




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