Avoiding a meltdown

Avoiding a meltdown

"TWIC must be implemented right the first time"

- Draft recommendations regarding the Transportation Worker Identification Credential issued on July 25 by the National Maritime Security Advisory Committee.

It would be hard to find a more truthful statement than that. The reason gets down to a simple reality: Freight transport operations can't be disrupted by the TWIC. Only a workable system of access control to transport facilities - one that does not disrupt the flow of trade in its attempt to improve security - will be able to come into being at U.S. ports and other facilities.

If a system that gums up the already fragile flow of containers in and out of marine terminals is forced down the throat of industry, the reaction will be so severe that it will force the government to find another solution. That's not because the voices of steamship lines, logistics companies and truckers carry any great weight in the national debate - they don't. Inside containers is trade, and disruptions to trade in today's world mean disruptions to the economy.

That is the message the Department of Homeland Security needs to hear loud and clear. The Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration are now pondering some 1,800 comments submitted in response to the proposed regulation to finally implement a national system of credentialing for freight transport workers. Some of the most important statements - those from marine terminal operators - are scathing. Their main point is that, as proposed, the regulation has the potential to create an unthinkable bottleneck at ports. Take, for example, these comments submitted by the United States Maritime Alliance, the Pacific Maritime Association and the National Association of Waterfront Employers - the three most important groups of U.S. terminal operators: "The unanimous opinion of experts in our industry is that if adopted as proposed, the TWIC program will result in system failures at marine terminal gates with adverse consequences that will ripple throughout the United States and world economies." The waterfront employers association took the unusual step last month of going directly to the White House to protest the initial rule as currently written.

Similar sentiments were expressed last week by the National Maritime Security Advisory Committee. The group "believes the proposed TWIC implementation is encumbered with complications that may jeopardize the success of the program and disrupt commerce."

The problem boils down to technology. The terminal operators as well as most of the maritime industry are unified in support of TWIC, even though some observers question the whole idea.

"An LNG facility is in itself a weapon, so restricting access makes sense, whereas with containers, the threat is the millions of them coming into the country and the possibility one may be used to smuggle a weapon. So restricting access to the facility does not solve the problem," said Carl D'Emilio, chief executive of terminal software firm Advent. But despite their general support for the TWIC, the terminal operators are aghast at current proposals. The card-reading technology the government proposes is called FIPS 201, used currently for access to government buildings. The initial rule would require a trucker to input a PIN number or feed the card into a reader to gain clearance. The concern is simply that a mechanical system such as that might suffice for a quiet indoor environment but would wilt in the face of the harsh outdoor industrial conditions that exist at marine terminals.

"Until card-reader technology and the procedures that go with it can be tested in the real world, the government must defer any requirement for the use of that technology," the waterfront employers said.

The first thing that needs to happen is for the comment period to be extended. The industry and some members of Congress have asked for this to happen, but the DHS has not agreed. One possibility is that the government could issue a final rule with an implementation date far enough into the future that any kinks can be worked out in the interim.

The DHS officials I spoke with last week are talking like they understand the full ramifications of the issue. They say they understand that viable technology must be implemented, lest a severe bottleneck be created. Given the political pressures to get TWIC implemented, we can only hope that a meltdown will be avoided.

Peter Tirschwell is vice president and editorial director of Commonwealth Business Media's Magazine Division. He can be contacted at (973) 848-7158, or at ptirschwell@joc.com.