Dr. Deirdre McGowan, 62, is the executive director of Inland Rivers Ports and Terminals, Inc (IRPT)., the intermodal professional trade association for the country’s inland waterway transportation system, whose members include some 300 inland ports and 1,800 shallow draft terminals.
At IRPT, McGowan oversaw threat assessments at 59 ports and terminals that handle cargos of concern, an effort that was made possible by a Round I Port Security Grant that was administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard. The group followed the assessments up with employee education programs that sought to give port authorities, as McGowan put it, “another set of eyes and ears.”
McGowan also serves as the vice chair of the Western Rivers Marine Security Executive Committee and as a member of the National Defense Transportation Association Port Security Best Practices and Supply Chain Best Practices Committees.
Port Security News talked by telephone with McGowan about the challenges faced by myriad maritime industries that make up the IRPT—a group whose diverse subset of security concerns appear bound by the threads of a common lack of federal funding and sometimes even a lack of official interest in their plight. Here’s some of what McGowan had to say:
PSN: What are IRPT members telling you about their operations and homeland security?
McGowan: Inland river people perceive their ports to be the most vulnerable, the most at risk. They point out that, if economic damage is a priority for terrorists, then closing down the Mississippi River would cause tremendous damage. That may be truer for us than for any blue-water port—with the exception of Los Angeles/Long Beach and New York/New Jersey—because we have a monopoly on the north-south barge freight traffic moving up and down the river. Cutting that off would be chaos beyond chaos. And yet, until Round 4 (of the port security grants), the (IRPT members) were only allocated four percent of all the port security money.
I think sometimes al-Qaeda’s main goal is to bankrupt us.
PSN: Many people complain that the total money allocated for the federal port grants was itself a drop in the bucket, so a fraction of that is …
McGowan: Negligible. What we’ve tried to do as an organization is to go in and help them do the kinds of things that they can do low cost. And identify those things that they need to purchase or build, to give them at least a step up. A fence unguarded is useless.
PSN: What about the shipping of petroleum products; it would seem to most people that they would be a big concern, too, right?
McGowan: That’s correct because we represent the Houston ship channel and the Beaumont ship channel, which have a tremendous amount of petroleum on them—those are inland ports. Some of those got their own (federal money), like Corpus Christi or Houston, but I’m talking about the little, broke ports.
PSN: The IRPT did get a “proof of concept” grant from DHS to do security assessments, correct?
McGowan: That was wonderful. I went to the Coast Guard and said, “Please identify those ports of which handle cargos of concern in your area,” then we went in with a team and did a threat analysis of the port. We did 59 of them. We also gathered up all the employees that they could turn loose and taught them how to identify anomalies in people that they are working around to help us have another set of eyes and ears. We were able to reach 200 employees in those 59 ports. These were smaller ports that handle very volatile cargos, mostly petroleum or some kind of chemical—the kind that would be the ultimate chemical cocktail rolling down a river.
PSN: How important to the inland ports is the issue of interoperable communications, so that all the relevant stakeholders can talk to each other?
McGowan: Absolutely; this is one of the main complaints that I have heard, that there are problems communicating between the ports, the Coast Guard and the first responders. They have been doing some drills—and I am proud of them for that--and radio interoperability is a problem. There are some technologies that have been evolving and I wanted to do a “proof of concept”—take one port and prove that it works, so that if it does, it spreads around, and if it doesn’t, well we haven’t lost very much.
PSN: In a radio interoperability proof of concept, who all would you seek to involve?
McGowan: Again, port personnel, the Coast Guard and the first responders. The thing is, let’s just take Memphis, which is where I wanted to do a proof of concept (through port security grant funding). Everybody and his uncle has a different kind of radio and a different kind of frequency, and they just cannot talk to each other. Now there is new technology out there that allows everybody to get on the same wavelength using the radios that they have. I thought it was a pretty good solution, and not very expensive. But I was turned down.
I also turned it in, unsuccessfully, for the port of Louisville on Round Two of the port grants, and through in across the river in Indiana, because I felt that if we had an incident; that the incident wouldn’t necessarily be confined by state lines, and that we would need to work together across jurisdictions.
PSN: What else do your members say is needed?
McGowan: A master plan for port recovery. It is perhaps a public relations problem, but we almost had Hurricane Ivan inundate New Orleans and it could have been catastrophic. We could have a terrorist incident in a port. Because of the tremendously good work that MARAD did when Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras and Nicaragua, we have kind of a template to start developing port recovery processes. Even though it is a p.r. nightmare to go out there and say, “We’re doing this because …” But we have to have something in place to reroute the freight, to handle chemical spills—there are little discreet parts all over the place, but there is no master (plan) for port recovery. Everybody has his own little territory.
PSN: So that is a problem at the back end of the process, but how are the ports facing the current security mandates?
McGowan: My guys were very perplexed by the federal requirements to have facility security plans in place. Part of the requirements is that you had to individualized plans—there seem to be no master plans that you can use, because every port is different. So they didn’t know how to do this. The Coast Guard, bless their hearts, they are so overworked, they couldn’t stop and help the little port of Rosedale, Mississippi, on how to do their facility security plan. And the ports didn’t have money to hire consultants or anything. So what we did was to put on seminars. And I am proud to tell you that we had 51 port owners, operators or whatever show up to learn how to do this, and all but one passed.
PSN: So, the ports are doing as best they can …
McGowan: They’re struggling with it. They have no funds. But our point is that you can do a lot of stuff and not spend money doing it.
PSN: What immediate needs do the inland ports have?
McGowan: To have an ombudsman who is a very skilled security analyst type who can help each one of these ports to identify what is wrong and what they can fix. There were so many things that could be done that don’t cost any money. I’ve got 300 ports and 1,800 terminals to worry about … they don’t have the money to do any of this high tech stuff, but they do have the money to turn the lights on and to lock the padlocks.
PSN: Of course, since 9/11 the nature of security threats has radically changed—before it was issues like narcotics and pilferage …
McGowan: I can see several scenarios that would be absolutely catastrophic to our economy and to our psyche that are tied to the inland ports and require little, if any, expertise in technical areas.
I’m concerned about people coming by in pleasure boats and taking pictures. I think we are terribly vulnerable on the river side—underneath.
PSN: If you were going to do just two things to improve security in the immediate term, what would those be?
McGowan: I think we need walk-though experts and a help line—so you can call in with questions and have somebody knowledgeable to answer the questions; somebody who can take the regulations and interpret them into English. Some of the port security guys may not have even graduated from high school. And you read the Federal Register and you think, “My God, I can’t understand this.”
PSN: So what you’re saying seems to be that some of the people don’t understand what their own security needs are, and that they don’t have anyone to talk to about it to answer their questions authoritatively.
PSN: So even if they have the will …
McGowan: And the money—they wouldn’t know what to do.
PSN: That seems to be a more generalized problem. Some very savvy port people say that they are inundated with security technology salespeople …
McGowan: Me too.
PSN: How do people feel about that? Do they have enough information to know what it is the salespeople are trying to get them to buy, or are they buying a pig in a poke?
McGowan: I think they are brushing a lot of these guys off—especially if you are peddling security hardware. The emphasis seems to be hardware, hardware, hardware, when the real solution to the problem is the people.
Just to show you how silly some of all this gets, two retired FBI agents developed this terrific employee education plan for us, and all of the ports wanted a copy of it on video. I ended up turning $20,000 of the grant back in. Could I take $4,000 of that $20,000 and have it professionally filmed and distributed as a video? No, because there was no (funding) category for that. And we could have reached several thousand employees if we could have made it.
PSN: You are working with retired FBI agents in the employee awareness effort?
McGowan: Yes. One taught anti-terrorism; he knows how to make bombs, is fluent in Arabic; he is an attorney. He was in charge of teaching the class, which he had taught many, many times before, about how to identify anomalies in people. You should have seen the evaluations he got—they were unbelievable.
The other guy is also from the FBI, but he had also worked for British Petroleum and Exxon. He had been responsible for security for the petroleum storage tanks in the inland river system.
Now, is that a team, or what?
Martin Edwin Andersen can be reached at Mick_Andersen@portsecuritynews.com.
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