A reminder from Hollywood

A reminder from Hollywood

The attack would begin with a brilliant, blue-green finger of light slamming into a busy New Jersey overpass just a few hundred yards from the city's crowded container port terminals. The impact would send gigantic expansions of steel and concrete - along with half-a-dozen recently laden container trucks and chassis - hurtling hundreds of feet through the air by an incomprehensible force. Hundreds of nearby residents and workers, having the simple misfortune of being in the wrong spot at the wrong time, would be instantly vaporized into swirling clouds of human dust.

While this scenario could quite plausibly be that of a carefully executed terrorist attack, it is actually a scene from the recently released movie "War of the Worlds" where the similarities to the actual terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were both deliberate and chilling. From the thousands of people trying frantically to escape the city on foot - many completely covered in dust and soot - to the makeshift walls containing hundreds of photos of missing family members and loved ones, the movie's parallel to the events of Sept. 11 evoked powerful memories and feelings. As I watched the movie, I found myself suddenly flooded with my own memories of that day. Of being stranded at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, where I witnessed the surreal picture of one of the world's busiest transportation centers reduced to a parking lot, and then, much like the characters in the movie, no longer knowing where "safe" was.

The movie's storyline was also heavily focused on technology, portraying both its power and its vulnerabilities. In comparison, I began thinking about the current state of our trade-security technologies and where we stand today after nearly four years of development. In the months immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks, it seemed that everyone was hawking some form of security-related hardware or software, many claiming to be the solution to our security needs. In fact, even Congress found itself in the rare position of being admonished for not spending money fast enough in this area. Alas, it soon became apparent that many of these technologies either just flat out didn't work, or would require further development.

Take radio-frequency identification, for example. Although not a new technology, RFID gained early prominence and promise of becoming just such a solution, representing the primary technology around which the "smart container" would be developed. In turn, the smart container suddenly became popularly touted as practically the panacea to container trade security, even being cited by Customs and Border Commissioner Robert Bonner as a future prerequisite for participation in the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program. And yet, even now we realize that for all of the promise that RFID and the smart container truly continue to hold, they are still undergoing proof-of-concept field trials.

So what makes the deployment of any new technology so tricky? I believe there are three fundamental components: First, the role of technology must be contained within its proper context of simply being a "process enabler" - that is, using technology to automate a process that would otherwise be too impractical or too expensive to accomplish manually. Second, like many comprehensive supply-chain systems already in place, technology solutions for countering terrorism will also likely be in the form of a solution "set" comprising multiple technologies integrated to form a cohesive, end-to-end system. And third, and most important, any technology will be only as effective as the people and processes that are developed to support it.

Our smart container, for example, will still be heavily dependent upon front-end personnel and processes to ensure that the container is securely loaded. It will require procedures for managing any potential compromise alerts that the container may send during its transport, which will include the need to establish allowable delivery thresholds for moving a particular container to the port of export, or to your distribution center upon importation. Procedures will be required to define what a security "event" is, what the proper corresponding response and escalation protocols will entail, and which personnel within your company will be responsible for responding. All of these procedures will then need to be adopted by industry to ensure that the control that the smart container represents is being implemented uniformly.

As this illustrates, we obviously still have a lot of work ahead of us. But should anyone need a reminder as to why, oddly enough, a trip to the theater may be in order.

William G. "Jerry" Peck is president and founder of Global Trade Management Solutions. He can be contacted at (815) 462-1732, or at wgpeck@comcast.net.