The Great Maritime Disruption… that Never Happened

Friday, September 10, 2004

By Joe DiRenzo III and Chris Doane

Y2K.

Remember the dire warnings four years ago as the world raced towards the stroke of midnight ushering in 2000? Editorials screamed that computer systems everywhere would fail making bank accounts inaccessible, traffic lights inoperable and the whole air traffic control system would come to a screeching halt leaving airplanes without guidance. Y2K disaster preparation "kits" were sold over the Internet as survivalists worried about governments all over the world failing and universal chaos occurring. Despite all these dire predictions from experts and average citizens alike governments, working in partnerships with industry (both large and small), took a very proactive approach, developed solutions and the great cyber meltdown never occurred. In fact, for days after Y2K many of the same experts that stirred public concern praised the joint public-private preparation effort that resulted in a smooth entry into the new millennium.

The experience of Y2K provides in many ways an ideal analogy for the rapid build up to the July 1st implementation of the United States' new Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) and its' international counterpart, the International Maritime Organization (IMO)'s International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) code. Intended to be the solid underpinnings for safe and secure maritime trade, many saw implementation of these laws as a recipe for disaster that would chop international trade at the knees. All around the globe, members of industry and media, especially some international trade publications and trade groups, proclaimed that the implementation of these new measures would create a massive interruption to maritime commerce that would bring the international Maritime Transportation System (MTS) to a standstill wreaking economic havoc to industry and national economies alike. Some painted pictures of large numbers of merchant vessels, their holds filled with every possible commodity or natural resource, held up from entering ports due to bureaucratic red tape. Once pier-side further international requirements would delay the normally rapid unloading process and owners and operators in today's "just in time delivery" business system would be significantly impacted. Millions of dollars would be lost forever. The maritime industry and the economies of all nations, so dependent upon maritime trade, would be dealt a significant, perhaps crippling, blow.

In the United States, with its 361 ports and massive dependency upon maritime trade, the Coast Guard was charged with implementing the MTSA and ISPS code. The Coast Guard using its expertise developed from a long history of close interaction with the maritime community quickly built an extensive outreach program with industry as well as federal, state and local government partners to meet the July 1, 2004 implementation deadline. The Coast Guard, at all levels from the local Captains of the Port, to its District Commanders, to the two Area Commanders (located in Portsmouth, Virginia and Alameda, California) and the Commandant instituted an aggressive communications program with the many domestic and international owners and operators of the thousands of vessels and waterfront facilities impacted by these new regulations.

The Coast Guard sought public comment then published regulations on how it intended to implement the MTSA. Coast Guard personnel issued Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circulars (NVICs) to further advise industry and its own members alike on the regulations, conducted training for industry and service members and instituted multi-phase review and approval processes for required vessel and facility security plans. They also provided for rapid feedback to owners and operators whose plans required additional work. The service conducted pre-July 1st visits to facilities and vessels, particularly foreign-flag vessels, to ensure the regulations were understood, that all involved knew that the service was serious in its intentions to enforce these regulations, and to identify facilities and vessels already in compliance in order to reduce the workload on July 1st. All of this required many in the Coast Guard and industry to have a second or third cup of coffee working overtime during the busy winter, spring and early summer. Despite these Herculean efforts and reassuring statements from the Coast Guard, many were still predicting that maritime commerce would be brought to a virtual stand still on July 1st with marine facility shutdowns and large numbers of vessels denied entry or trapped in vessel traffic jams waiting to pass through security screenings to enter port. However, on July 1st, the new security measures where enforced and maritime commerce continued to flow smoothly with barely a hiccup. The reasons why the implementation of MTSA was a non-event are the same reasons why Y2K was a non-event, preparation and prompt action. On the maritime industry side, they recognized the need for enhanced security and heeded the governmental warnings that enforcement would be stringent. By July 1, over 99 percent of all U.S. facilities and vessels subject to the MTSA had submitted their security plans to the Coast Guard and had received at least sufficient approval to continue to operate.

Beginning on July 1st, the Coast Guard began screening every vessel arriving at its first U.S. port of call to ensure compliance with the MTSA and ISPS Code. With, on average, over 250 vessels arriving at the U.S. daily, this workload could have overwhelmed the Coast Guard's limited resources creating the predicted vessel traffic jams off our ports. This did not occur thanks to the proactive efforts by many vessels engaged in foreign trade to obtain their International Ship Security Certificate (ISSC) from their country of registry, certifying compliance with ISPS well in advance of the July deadline. This allowed the Coast Guard to conduct pre-July 1st ISPS examinations, which identified the ISPS compliant vessels that were subsequently allowed to enter port after July 1st without a security examination. All in all, this reduced the Coast Guard's first day workload by nearly 25 percent. According to Coast Guard Headquarters, also as of July 13, only 21 foreign vessels, out of 3,420 have been denied entry or expelled from port because of non-compliance with ISPS, with a mere 45 vessels detained or restricted in port.

Similar numbers were found domestically regarding MTSA compliance within the United States. Forty-six vessels have been restricted and 22 facilities closed or restricted out of approximately 10,000 vessels and 5,000 facilities required to meet MTSA standards. The numbers speak for themselves; in all cases less than two percent of facilities and vessel were impacted.

The great disaster to maritime commerce never materialized and governments and the maritime industry are settling into a new rhythm of maritime trade with a transportation system that is more secure.

The implementation of the MTSA and ISPS Code has been a dramatic and successful first step toward increasing the security of our maritime transportation system. There remains, however, much more work to be done by all stakeholders to improve the security of vessels and facilities around the world. Vessel and facility security plans must be refined and improved as we continue to learn what is needed for security in our ports. Government agencies, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, must continue to aggressively inspect vessels and facilities to ensure that they continue to implement the measures in their security plans. However, both industry and the government can take some satisfaction that the "massive disruption" never took place and congratulate themselves for a job well done!

About the Authors: Frequent contributors to the Maritime Reporter & Engineering News; Maritime Security Sourcebook; and Marine News, Joe DiRenzo III is Coast Guard's Atlantic Area's Anti-Terrorism Coordinator. Chris Doane is Atlantic Area's Chief of Response and Port Security. Both are retired Coast Guard officers, who write and speak often on Maritime and Port Security issues.

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