TSA to award grants for port security tech

The Transportation Security Administration is expanding a program to test technologies that could enhance the safety of international cargo, preventing disruption of global trade and better protecting U.S. ports.

The goal of Operation Safe Commerce — an outgrowth of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — is to protect the supply chain, weeding out vulnerabilities that crop up along the way, from packaging to delivery. Federal, state and local governments, along with industry partners, are collaborating on the security initiative.

"The issue for them is to be able to demonstrate what all the technologies are out there right now," said Jerry Woolever, senior vice president for homeland security operations at Innovative Logistics Technique Inc., or Innolog, a potential participant that has put together a team of small companies.

In the first phase of the program, a container fitted with onboard tracking sensors and door seals was monitored as it traveled from Eastern Europe to New Hampshire.

In the second stage, TSA will take a wider view, distributing about $28 million in grants to seaports in the Los Angeles/Long Beach, Seattle/Tacoma and New York/New Jersey regions, the nation's three largest load centers.

The homeland security community continues to be concerned about ports, with thousands of ships and millions of containers entering and leaving the United States each year, according to TSA.

"Although U.S. Customs examines all manifests from imported containers, less than 2 percent of all containers are inspected," said Adm. James Loy, undersecretary of transportation for security, Jan. 15 at the Transportation Research Board's 82nd Annual Meeting.

Last month, vendors submitted proposals for Operation Safe Commerce, tailoring them to meet each port's specific needs and to address its shortcomings. Awards are expected in June or July, with testing slated to follow.

Once the assessments begin, TSA will need a way to measure the products' value, noted Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc.

"The grant [pro-cess] is another area that could really benefit from a performance-based focus," Mather said. "It's a perfect opportunity." The agency has applied that approach to its massive information technology infrastructure program.

Down the road, TSA officials hope the best solutions from Operation Safe Commerce will be replicated and scaled for use by commercial shippers. But getting industry to comply will boil down to cost, Woolever said, adding, "If we make this thing too expensive, they're going to balk."

"It's an important program," said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the agency. "The fruit of Operation Safe Commerce will allow us to better track [and] better safeguard the flow of containers" throughout the United States.

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