Customs Service preps ACE

The first phase of the Customs Service's new automated trade monitoring system is scheduled to begin operating in February, the agency's technology chief announced Nov. 21.

The Automated Commercial Environment, or ACE, will debut by allowing 40 shipping companies to begin tracking the goods they import through Web-based electronic accounts. Electronic account sheets will provide information about cargo inspections, clearance into the United States and other information.

By August, more than 1,100 companies are expected to be included in the new system, said S.W. "Woody" Hall Jr., chief information officer at the Customs Service. Initially the system will be used to monitor and process shipments entering the United States through land border crossings by truck.

Shipments entering the country by rail, ship and aircraft will not be added to the system until 2004 or 2005, Hall said in an address to shippers at a Customs Service trade symposium.

Although ACE is intended to reduce paperwork and speed the processing of shipments, its most important role now may be improving border security. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that has become the Customs Service's most important mission, Hall said.

ACE is expected to help Customs inspectors decide, before shipments reach the U.S. border, which shipments should be targeted as high risk and warrant inspection. The system is designed to let Customs personnel better share and analyze information about shippers, goods being shipped, routes, destinations, inspection results and other details.

It will take until 2007 for the system to be fully deployed, Hall said.

ACE will replace the 18-year-old computer Automated Commercial System, which "has far exceeded its life expectancy," Hall said. ACS' obsolete technology is overwhelmed by the "dramatically increased" volume of trade. The rising tide of incoming goods is also straining Customs Service personnel, whose numbers have not increased along with the traffic, he said.

Customs personnel are counting on the efficiency of the ACE system to ease their workload, Hall said.

ACE is only one of several systems the Customs Service is employing in its effort to counter terrorism. Hall said the agency has deployed 6,000 personal radiation detectors so Customs agents can screen incoming cargo for nuclear material that might be used in a terrorist weapon.

The agency has also deployed dozens of X-ray and gamma ray devices that can peer into sealed cargo containers, trucks and rail cars to see what's inside.

Isotope identification devices are being deployed to quickly identify any radiological material that is discovered, and Customs agents are undergoing training to recognize weapons of mass destruction or their components, he said.

In addition, Customs Service laboratories have fielded a fleet of mobile labs to test suspected nuclear, biological or chemical weapons or components.

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