The Marine Firefighting Institute

Newsletter # 10

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Port Security - Are We Missing the Boat??

By Tom Guldner


Since September 11, 2001 we have been hearing much about the need for port security. "Fears that terrorists will take advantage of shipping security lapses are not unfounded. Last October, Italian officials found a suspected Al Qaeda terrorist living in a container bound for Canada, with a laptop, a satellite phone, and airport security passes."1 (Also see MFI's Newsletter # 4) Billions of dollars are being appropriated to create new law enforcement agencies and to beef up existing ones. Almost all of these billions are being spent on the police aspect of port security.

We hear many people stating that every shipping container entering our ports must be thoroughly inspected or x-rayed. Making these very strong suggestions may be good politically to win votes, but what is the possibility of these actions actually occurring in the short run. It is totally unrealistic to think that each of the almost 8 million containers entering this country each year will be opened up and all of it contents thoroughly inspected. The economy of the world would be drastically affected in the attempt to reach this unachievable goal. "Last year, 7.8 million sealed cargo containers hauling $480 billion worth of goods arrived at U.S. ports."2 Having all containers x-rayed might be achieved if we had the technology and the numbers of machines required. The few x-ray systems now in use are only able to indicate where a different density exists within a shipping container. This "anomaly" would then be investigated by unloading that particular container. The following are comments made by retired Coast Guard Rear Admiral Richard M. Larrabee, now director of port commerce at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in an interview with the Boston Globe. ''If we try to look at more cargo, I'm afraid we might still be faced with a concern,'' Larrabee said. ''You can X-ray a container full of drums, but you still don't know what's in the drums.''3 So, this system is in no way foolproof and with the inadequate number of x-ray machines we now have we are only able to x-ray about 2% of the incoming containers.

Even if every container could be examined, we are still missing the point! The suspected container would already be inside our port! Rear Admiral Richard M. Larrabee went on to say, ''Today there are really no security standards for loading or sealing a container anywhere in the world. There is no way to determine that a container, before it leaves for the United States, does not contain a weapon of mass destruction. Interdiction at port is simply too late.''4

There is another side to port security. We must prepare for the possibility that one of the 98% of the containers we are not checking, or the one we are about to check, will contain a terrorist device. If the device goes off in a harbor one of the results is that we will be faced with one or more major ship fires. Our nations Firefighters will once again be called upon to go in where everyone else is going out. There is one major difference this time. Our Firefighters will be entering an environment that they have little or no knowledge about.

Firefighters are trained, and have experience with, structural firefighting. However, most major port cities do not offer any specific training for their Firefighters in shipboard firefighting. Even those cities that do possess fireboats rarely provide marine firefighting training for anyone other than the few undermanned crews of their fireboats. Land based Firefighters will be sent in to fight the fire. Sending untrained Firefighters into the unfamiliar environment of a major ship fire can have horrendous results. Firefighters daily take "calculated" risks. In order for them to calculate these risks they must be given the information they will need to determine what those risks are aboard a ship.

Further endangering the lives of our Firefighters is only one part of this dilemma. Without the training and knowledge of the crucial differences between a structural fire and a fire aboard a ship, the firefighting effort may very well produce the exact result the terrorist originally intended. If one of these large ships is sunk in a vital shipping channel due to the Firefighters lack of training in ship construction and stability, the entire port may be shut down for months.

Other threats to shipping within our ports can come from within the port itself. The recent attack on the USS Cole demonstrates how a small vessel driven by terrorists can inflict substantial damage on a large ship. If that large ship happens to be an oil tanker or LPG tanker, then the risk is compounded dramatically. "Tuesday, 30 October, 2001, 14:10 GMT Tamil suicide boat rams oil tanker. A Tamil Tiger suicide boat has hit an oil tanker off northern Sri Lanka, setting the ship on fire, military officials said."5

Every Fire Department that could conceivably be called in to fight a ship fire should be provided with the information, training, and equipment needed to do the job. Included in this list must be Fire Departments who, while not located within in a port, have access to a commercial waterway where these ships pass. This training should be an integral part of the program in that department's probationary training school as well as in ongoing training for units in the field. The Office of Homeland Security, The Federal Emergency Management Agency, and The Federal Fire Academy should be pushing for the funds required to meet these needs. How much marine firefighting training material is available on the Federal Fire Academy web site? We need their national force pushing for our interests. Limited funds through Federal fire grants are available in some cases, but there is no one pushing for the creation of this training.

In no way do I wish to minimize the importance of attempting to prevent another terrorist attack from occurring in the first place. I only want us to be realistic in that attempt, and to insure that we also have the ability to mitigate any disaster that might occur should we fail in that difficult task. We must mitigate it with the least risk to our Firefighters.

1. Port security called lacking By Thanassis Cambanis, Boston Globe, 3/27/2002

2. Port security faces long haul , by Seth Borenstein and Peter Boylan, Duluth News Tribune April 1, 2002.

3. Port security called lacking By Thanassis Cambanis, Boston Globe, 3/27/2002

4. Port security called lacking By Thanassis Cambanis, Boston Globe, 3/27/2002

5. BBC Internet News http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/south_asia/newsid_1628000/1628218.stm

Stay safe,

Tom Guldner

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Previous Newsletters:

Newsletter # 1 "Marine Firefighting Training, Who needs it!"

Newsletter # 2 "Shipboard Basics"

Newsletter # 3 "Straight Stream Vs Fog Stream"

Newsletter #4 "Immigrants in Shipping Containers"

Newsletter #5 "Hazards of Refrigeration in the Shipping Industry"

Newsletter #6 "Stability at Shipboard Fires"

Newsletter #7 "2 in 2 out at Shipboard Fires"

Newsletter #8 "What Happened to the Air"

Newsletter #9 "What Esle Can Fire Boats Do? WTC response"