Getting a Handle on the Situation

As director of Port Security and Emergency Operations for the Virginia Port Authority, Ed Merkle faced an enormous challenge when it came to protecting the port’s three marine terminals. Not only are the terminals spread out along three separate points — one on the James River and two on the Elizabeth River in southern Virginia — but its inter-coastal waterway is heavily traveled by pleasure boats. This posed an additional security challenge for an area that needs to remain secure for the cargo container ships that use the facility on a daily basis and the Navy ships docked nearby.
After making millions of dollars in security upgrades to protect its facilities following the Sept. 11 attacks, Merkle needed to monitor all of these security systems and devices. Federal grants enabled the port to invest $22 million to implement hundreds of new surveillance cameras, add access control and other security elements to harden buildings determined to be part of its critical infrastructure, install cameras and sensors along 10 miles of fence line and to build a critical command center.
Despite the disparate location of these devices — whether these security systems were in Norfolk International Terminals, Newport News Marine Terminal and Portsmouth Marine Terminal — Merkle needed to seamlessly tie all these systems together under a single management platform. To do that, he pursued an additional $3 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for additional upgrades.
“We felt like we had done all the physical improvements we could do, and now had to tackle the infrastructure to make it a better user interface,” Merkle says. “It was critical that any system we implemented could communicate with existing systems and future system we would add.”
The need to make a significant change in how it handles security prompted the Virginia Port Authority to initiate an extensive two-year search for a solution that would pass the test of time. Merkle involved the Virginia Port Authority’s IT department and Virginia Port Authority Police Captain, Operations Division Commander Mike Brewer. Together, they completed a market analysis of the solutions available in the security market and visited other high-security facilities to review the solutions they implemented.
“We knew the solution would have an IP basis and the port police would be the ultimate user of the system,” Merkle says of the decision to involve the port’s police department and IT department in the process.
Brewer and Merkle traveled throughout the United States reviewing solutions already in place — including a visit to New York to review a system deployed by a local bridge authority — to get a better understanding of their own security needs. Merkle and Brewer found the bridge authority a close match to the port authority — with similar security solutions deployed and professional security resources. The information proved useful as they made their decision on what solution to deploy and how it would work with existing security devices and software.
“Today in police work, you never have enough police officers or support, so you have to rely on technology to bridge that gap of the personnel you don’t have,” Brewer says.
After an extensive search, the Virginia Port Authority selected Situator from Orsus, a security and safety situation management software for integrated control rooms. The system enables the port authority to integrate existing security systems into a single, software-based platform to manage and monitor. Using the software and a visual interface, the port can view a map of its multiple facilities and locations of each security device, identify a security incident as it happens and follow proper steps and procedures, such as pulling up additional surveillance video to view a situation, dispatching a police officer to further investigate an incident or notifying superiors of a major incident.
It also enables the port to tie in new systems it might implement in the future and supports C-TPAT (Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism) compliance. These capabilities were key for the Virginia Port Authority, which built a new command and control center at its terminal in Norfolk to monitor the events at its facilities.
One of the important benefits that the system provides is the ability to act proactively. For example, if the system provides a command center dispatcher with an alert, and if surveillance video is available in that area, the system automatically pulls up that video. That security alert needs to be acknowledged by the dispatcher, and if it is not, the system will notify the next person in command that an alert has not been handled. If it is a major security incident, the system sends an alert (such as a text message or e-mail notification) to all the supervisors to inform them the security level at the port has changed.
According to Brewer, these changes have all been positive for the port and its future security needs. In the past, if a person jumped the perimeter fence, the dispatcher had to work from a hardcopy manual or from memory on who to contact about the security breach and when. Now, the system provides the dispatcher with all the relevant information from each security device in a method that is easy to manage with a dynamic task list that evolves with the situation.
“Situator is an intuitive thinking program, but it doesn’t make choices for the dispatcher,” Brewer says. “He or she has to still do that.”
The system has also helped Merkle to transition the port from using security as a deterrent to using security proactively. It was important to identify a hole in a fence immediately after the incident occurred instead of having a police officer locate it hours or days later — only to have to pull up old surveillance video to pinpoint what happened.
“We have 89 sworn officers that patrol our three marine terminals,” Merkle says. “We knew that to respond quickly, we needed to take the information, digest it and get it back to them.”
Even though the Virginia Port Authority has a solid amount of manpower, with many of its police officers working for the port for decades and long-term knowledge in hand on how to handle an emergency situation, it was important for port officials to extract that information for all of its personnel to use.
That information has served as the foundation for the policies and procedures the Virginia Port Authority has implemented, providing command center dispatchers with information on what steps to take in the event of an emergency and what kind of direction to provide to the police officers in the field.
Deploying the system also prompted the port authority to take a closer look at its security measures. Prior to installation, if someone propped a door open in a secured building to step outside to smoke a cigarette, it was difficult to determine why the access control systems indicated a door was ajar — was it because of a security breach, was it a hardware malfunction or did someone leave the door open? By connecting the access control system with the video, dispatchers can now clearly see who is leaving the door open, and can receive solid information on the date and time of each incident, making it easier to address the problem immediately and solve any future issues.
“Now that we have made the investment, my whole intent was to maximize what these systems were telling us,” Merkle says. “It’s critically important, from a security perspective, to know how that breach occurred. Was it an intentional breach in security or was it an accident?”
With the system now in place, the Virginia Port Authority has plans to implement additional technologies in the future that will work with its existing surveillance solutions. One such capability is wireless mesh technology that will enable police officers in the field to view live video on handheld devices.

Ed Merkle is director of Port Security and Emergency Operations for the Virginia Port Authority. Rafi Bhonker is vice president of marketing for Orsus.

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