U.S. ports are preparing for catastrophic terrorism in a major new program of
security drills that began last week in the San Francisco Bay area and continues
next week in Baltimore (see GSN,
The federal Port Security Training Exercises Program (PortSTEP) is to bring
together government and private-sector officials responsible for maritime transportation
and commerce, emergency response and land transit in 40
port districts around the United States. Officials participate in fictitious
incident scenarios intended to reflect the terrorist threat environment.
“Everyone was really, really engaged because the scenarios were very
realistic” in the San Francisco Bay exercises, Universal Systems and Technology
Inc. Vice President for Homeland Security David Holmes said yesterday.
The company, known as Unitech, was the lead contractor for last week’s
exercises and will fill that role for most of the exercises scheduled around
the country through September 2007. The U.S. Coast Guard and Transportation
Security Administration are administering the program.
Holmes would not specifically say whether weapons of mass destruction figured
in the San Francisco Bay scenarios.
“You certainly have to know what the realities are today, what the challenges
are today” in order to design realistic exercises, Holmes said. “What
are the events that could shut down, for example, transportation or the shipping
industry on the West Coast?”
The 40 sets of exercises are being conducted in seaports and inland ports of
various sizes and terrorist threat profiles, ranging from Chicago to San Juan,
Virgin Islands. Holmes said exercises would be tailored to the ports’
varying situations, potentially involving threats to cruise ships in San Juan
or to sea commerce in Long Beach, Calif.
“There are different challenges based upon levels of readiness, levels
of resource,” he said. “A lot of it is threat-risk-based. As a contractor,
we are certainly aware of the Department of Homeland Security’s —
particularly this secretary’s — focus on ensuring that we are spending
the resources correctly based upon threat-risk.”
The overall goal of the program is to harmonize and improve security efforts
among different agencies, companies, transportation modes and regions potentially
affected by threats to ports. Last week’s participants included city and
state emergency management agencies, fire departments, port administrators and
land transportation entities, Holmes said.
Federal and contractor officials refused to divulge specific exercise scenarios,
but the Transportation Security Administration said last week that “scenarios
range from how officials react to discovering a suspect cargo container to an
explosion at a seaport rail yard.”
“Through these exercises and other programs,” Coast Guard port
security head Capt. Frank Sturm said last week, “we will be continually
testing and evaluating how ready we are to deal with an actual threat to our
For now, the exercises are of the “advanced tabletop” variety,
which involves top officials’ reacting to specific attack scenarios but
not actually deploying emergency personnel and resources in response to the
fictitious incident. The Baltimore exercise is set to kick off Wednesday, and
the first full-scale, nontabletop exercises will begin about a year from now,
In the two-day San Francisco Bay event, hosted by the California Maritime Academy,
such techniques as live fictitious news broadcasts were used to impart realism
to the proceedings. Different participants were progressively given different
pieces of information.
Holmes said the exercises involved more than 100 participants and yielded valuable
“The notion of testing any plan is to look for ways to improve it,”
he said. “We learned certain things that we needed to refine.”