Port Manatee Makes Security a Top Priority

Oct. 31--MANATEE -- Orange juice from Brazil. Bananas from Central America. Lumber from Europe. Not exactly terrifying stuff.

Yet security at Port Manatee exceeds security at many military bases. The port, following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has emerged as a leader in security technology and a model for other ports.

Along with new security measures, language new to many of us has emerged.

Crew members aboard ships from countries not considered "favored" are called "detainees on board" and are prevented from setting foot on U.S. soil. Sheriff's deputies are posted at the gangplank, a measure paid for by ship owners. On the watch list are countries like Colombia, Cuba and some from the Middle East and Caribbean.

Even if the ship originates in a favored nation, its last port of call could dictate whether crew members are classified as detainees or not.

"We trade with almost every continent," said David McDonald, executive director of Port Manatee. "It isn't something that's handled lightly anymore."

The decision to monitor a ship is a function of the federal government, decided by customs and the U.S. Coast Guard, said Frank Holden, director of seaport security.

Florida ports have the toughest security in the nation, but the expense could affect a port's competitiveness, McDonald said. The port's budget for fiscal 2005 was $13 million. Security accounted for 7.3 percent, close to $1 million. The 2006 budget is $14.5 million with $1.1 million, or 7.6 percent, for security.

Recent security upgrades at Port Manatee include a new $3 million access center and a $1 million lighting program. Other surveillance costs amounted to $500,000.

"I hope we've reached the level of security we need," McDonald said. "The costs are overtaking many of our seaports. We don't want to have to raise rates so we're not competitive."

Doing business at the port has evolved since Sept. 11 to include a slew of multilayered security clearances. Truckers and dock workers are subject to FBI background checks and spot checks by local and federal agencies. They have to have a parking sticker and park in a certain area, and badges must be worn at all times.

Then there are roving patrols, unscheduled visits by local law enforcement, and routine checkups on vessels and cargo by the U.S. Coast Guard, which drops in by helicopter or by land. U.S. Customs also has a presence.

Infrared camera surveillance records activity.

The port, which was shut down to fishing, has now implemented what McDonald calls "a security program that allows people to fish."

Port employees may cast a line at the port but have to carry a cell phone and are expected to report unusual activity.

"It's extra eyes and ears on the port," McDonald said. "They're people most familiar with the port anyway."

From federal and local officials to individual workers, each layer of security looks out for something different.

"There is a degree of overlap and a high degree of sharing," McDonald said.

That sharing is critical for security, said Jack Mallon, a security industry analyst and managing director of Mallon & Associates, an investment bank in New York serving the investment industry.

All too often, one agency knows what another doesn't, and the one that doesn't know is charged with the execution of an assignment, he said. In the event of a crisis, it raises the question: Who's in charge? Navy? Customs? City or state law enforcement?

"Some ports have made an attempt to coordinate these various agency efforts but it's very spotty," Mallon said.

"There has always has been a high degree of competitiveness among law enforcement agencies, especially between local and federal. That seems to persist to this day, not only in the ports but in other areas. We haven't really solved it."

Any kind of drug conviction disqualifies you from working at a seaport in Florida.

"We've even had some contractors come in who had to go out and get new employees because theirs didn't pass a background check," McDonald said.

Port Manatee is one of three Florida ports participating in a test of security access cards for transportation workers. Currently, each seaport requires its own credentials. If adopted, the system will create uniformity, allowing workers access to multiple Florida ports using a single ID. It could be adopted nationwide, Holden said.

Visitors to the port also need a photo ID. After five visits in a 90-day period, they must submit to an FBI background check, which costs about $70 for an annual pass and is paid for by the visitor.

Starting early next year, fingerprint biometrics will augment a background check required for all workers and frequent visitors.

Port Manatee is the only U.S. port certified to offer training by the U.S. Maritime Administration. Holden and his staff have developed a curriculum to meet the standards set by the Marine Transportation Security Act of 2002. The act requires each vessel and each facility on land to have its own security officer.

Port officials host training for other ports around the United States or travel to them and are reimbursed for their costs.

Narcotics training, immigration issues and theft were all being addressed at seaports prior to Sept. 11, Holden said

"After 9/11, terrorism was added as a priority," he said.