Securing the Houston Ship Channel

May 20, 2014
How a unique public/private partnership, vision and technology came together

The Houston Ship Channel, located in Houston, Texas, is part of the Port of Houston—one of the United States' busiest seaports. As the world's 10th largest seaport, Houston handles more foreign waterborne tonnage than any other U.S. port. When it comes to securing the Ship Channel, the stakes are high. The Houston Ship Channel is a vital national asset. The Houston Ship Channel region includes 40 percent of U.S. chemical refining capacity and 14 percent of U.S. crude refining capacity, including a significant amount of U.S. jet fuel capacity. It’s also home to the world's second largest petrochemical complex. It’s estimated that the Ship Channel region generates approximately $120 billion annually in direct and indirect impact on the Texas economy. A shutdown of the refining and chemical industry in this region would impact the nation, region, state and local economies.

Over 150 private industrial (refining, chemical and distribution) companies operate within the confines of the 52-mile Houston Ship Channel. Many of these companies are also part of the Houston Ship Channel Security District (HSCSD), a unique public-private partnership whose mission is to improve security and safety for the facilities, employees and communities within and surrounding the Houston Ship Channel. The Port of Houston Authority and Harris County are also members of the HSCSD. Originally conceived by local industry and government following the Sept. 11th attacks, the HSCSD was established as a result of Texas state law (House Bill 3011). The unique partnership enables HSCSD members to collectively invest in the infrastructure and resources necessary to secure the Ship Channel’s extensive waterside and landside facilities, supply chain and industries. HSCSD security initiatives are funded through a combination of federal grants and member assessments.

Responsibility for day-to-day monitoring of Ship Channel security cameras falls on the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. A 24/7 monitoring center operated by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (called the Security Monitoring and Assessment Group, or SMAG) is the focal point for threat assessment and response.  While the SMAG has general security oversight, the Harris County Information Technology Center’s mission is to vet and implement technology that the Harris County Sheriff’s Office’s SMAG needs to fulfill its security role. John Chaney, Mobility Architect with the Harris County Information Technology Center, leads this effort. Under his guidance, Harris County was one of the first counties in the nation to deploy LTE broadband.

Now, through the collaborative efforts of the Harris County Information Technology Center, the Harris County Sherriff’s Office, the Houston Ship Channel Security District, and NICE Systems, the entities have brought their collective resources and technology together to help Harris County and the HSCSD achieve a well-coordinated, system-wide approach to security that’s unprecedented in the industry. The project is a perfect example of how multiple public and private entities can come together to achieve impressive results through shared vision, collaboration, and technology.

At the heart of the successful collaboration is the NICE Situator PSIM solution. Through its deployment of Situator, the SMAG has been able to achieve greater situational awareness, improved coordination with federal, state and local agencies, and streamlined incident response.

“We view PSIM as essential to our core mission of securing the Houston Ship Channel. It has helped us achieve greater situational awareness, improve collaboration and information sharing across response teams, and automate our various processes and responses to events,” said Lieutenant Godfrey T. Eta, Harris County Sheriff’s Office. ”It’s a paradigm change in the way we manage safety and security at the Ship Channel.”

Integrating stovepipes of information for better situational awareness

SMAG operators have various sensors and systems at their disposal for real-time situational awareness – for example, video cameras (managed through NiceVision VMS), infrared cameras, radar, sonar, a shipboard AIS (Automatic Identification System) vessel tracking system, GIS mapping software, and a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather tracking system. But before Situator, there was no way to easily and intelligently connect these stovepipes of information.

“The nice thing about our PSIM system is it integrates and correlates these different stovepipes of information into one common viewing platform, for better situational awareness,” said Lieutenant Eta. “Before the PSIM system, we really didn’t have anything that could bring these disparate information sources together.”

Earlier this year, the Situator solution was instrumental in detecting four men breaking into a warehouse at the port who were ultimately apprehended and arrested. In a separate event, SMAG operators were alerted to a fire outside a plant. Had it gone undetected, it could have escalated into something far worse.

Integration to GIS mapping software, AIS, and radar means SMAG operators can visualize unfolding situations in a location-specific context, and get a real-time visual of what’s happening in the Ship Channel, whether on land or on the water.  For example they are able to view video for specific locations, monitor exclusion zones (established security areas that unauthorized vessels are prohibited from entering), and track ships in staging areas. When threats are detected the SMAG operators can visualize and manage situations in real-time.  Site maps are built into the system so operators can see where all the industry assets and sensors are located. In addition to fixed video, SMAG operators can view live streaming mobile video from police boats and vehicles. The Situator software is also deployed in the Harris County Mobile Command Center should the need arise for a mobile emergency response.

Another benefit of the SMAG’s comprehensive security management solution is its embedded automated adaptive response plans that effectively guide appropriate responses to situations. The system presents step-by-step instructions to the SMAG operator based on the specific scenario and the SMAG’s pre-established standard operating procedures. NICE consulted with Harris County to help develop and implement 20 response scenarios, with more planned for the future. The automated response plans ensure operators stay on task, even during stressful situations, and eliminate the need to recall procedures from memory.

“NICE was very responsive in helping us step through the process of building those scenarios to better automate our processes,” said Chaney.

Layered security approach

Another facet of the HSCSD security model is a layered protection approach that requires close coordination among multiple local, regional and federal authorities. A number of agencies have a hand in ensuring safety and security of the Ship Channel. While their roles are different, they share a common goal: protecting the Ship Channel. The SMAG has overall responsibility for monitoring Ship Channel security cameras. However, the U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for the vessels entering the channel. The Port of Houston Authority responds to all waterborne and waterfront emergencies. This includes fires, explosions and any incident that would interfere with the flow of ship channel traffic.

The SMAG, Harris County Sheriff’s Office Dispatch, the Police Department at the Port of Houston Authority, the U.S. Coast Guard, and other entities within the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Office of Emergency Management, all use NICE Situator at their locations. This means they all have access to the same incident alerts and video feeds.  Should an incident occur that requires a coordinated response, these entities can collaborate more effectively, because they share the same common operating picture of the unfolding situation. In the very near future, the SMAG and the U.S. Coast Guard will be moving into the same facility so they’ll be able to work side by side and relay information to each other instantly.

“We see our PSIM system as a core foundation for information sharing among these agencies,” said Eta.

The solution is also helping the SMAG to create closer collaboration with first responders in the field. Harris County is currently collaborating with NICE to deploy smart devices that will enable field personnel to access video feeds for situational awareness, and receive tasks lists so they can better synchronize response processes with the SMAG center.

Expanding Regionally

The Harris County Information Technology Center is also in discussions with other regional agencies to expand this collaborative security management approach regionally, using LTE Broadband as the main backbone.

In fact, the Houston Ship Channel Security District and Harris County recently hosted a workshop with NICE, attended by about 30 people representing various HSCSD member companies/organizations and other local/state/federal agencies. Individuals had an opportunity to learn about the PSIM solution, hear about HSCSD’s success, and contribute their own ideas about what a regional shared PSIM solution might look like and how their agencies/companies might benefit.

“With the foundation now laid we’re looking forward to expanding this initiative regionally to other agencies, such as Emergency Management, which could use the PSIM solution to improve response to other types of emergencies, such as hurricanes and HazMat spills,” added Chaney. “Our long range plan is to leverage what we’ve developed and learned and apply it to enhance preparedness and response to security threats and all-hazard emergencies on a regional level.”

Chaney also wisely recognizes that the mission of securing the Ship Channel extends beyond securing the area within the HSCSD’s boundaries. “By securing the area around the Ship Channel, we can provide a higher level of security for the Ship Channel.  Goods and people have to come in to and out of the Ship Channel so securing the Ship Channel is bigger than the Ship Channel itself.”

With that in mind, Harris County is also examining how it can leverage NICE Situator and its Public Safety LTE broadband network to facilitate better collaboration with other regional agencies, including sharing of video resources. “The goal is to provide better situational awareness and situation management tools to agencies and to first responders, so they can handle any kind of situation,” explained Eta.

As a first step in this cross-region collaboration, NICE is in the process of integrating video feeds from one Harris County municipality into NICE Situator. Harris County is also in discussions with several other large municipalities.

About the Author:

Linda Haelsen is security industry freelance writer.


 This case study was a submission in STE’s 2013 Security Innovation Awards program. For details on how to submit for the 2014 awards, please email editorial director Steve Lasky at [email protected].