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Disaster Preparedness 2011: The “layered” cake -- Preparing for port and cargo disasters

Andrew Goldsmith

Port security seems to be the forgotten child when it comes to preparing for disasters, at least in the public eye. Potential threats to aviation and mass transit generate many more conversations, and for good reason, but the risks posed to ports, primarily from cargo, cannot be ignored. 

A cargo container looks innocuous, just a square, metal box loaded with goods…right? This impression could not be further from the truth. 

Cargo containers are highly effective vehicles for any manner of threats, making them a primary focus when it comes to disaster planning and preparedness for port authorities. Every day, millions of cargo containers arrive in U.S. ports from all over the world, including points of origin where dangerous goods -- from radioactive materials to weaponry -- are poorly regulated and easily obtained. So, that big metal box could hold anything from a load of teddy bears to Kalashnikovs to yellow cake uranium. 

Pirate assaults on U.S. ports aren’t exactly commonplace, nor are U-boats prowling the waters of the Atlantic in this day and age. The threats posed to port authorities are more subtle and often encased in a 40-foot metal box. That’s why disaster preparedness at ports starts, and practically ends, with cargo containers. 

Essentially, the threats posed to ports from cargo containers can be classified into three buckets: 

  • Weaponry -- includes everything from AK-47s to LAW rockets;
  • Chemical/biological -- is a fairly broad category and can include legal materials that have simply been misclassified during the shipping process (for example, labeling a shipment of hydrochloric acid as “water”) to packaged threats intended to create a disaster, such as disease warfare agents;
  • Radioactive materials -- Ports deal with radioactivity on a daily basis, but the threat of disaster lies in these materials making their way into the hands of terrorist cells, both domestic and otherwise, for dirty bomb creation or worse.

Notice that contraband doesn’t make the list. While smuggled goods do fuel crime, Cuban cigars or untaxed foreign melons do not pose the same threat as an aftermarket Soviet warhead. 

The potential disasters facing ports are wide and varied, ranging from immediate localized catastrophes to slow-burning disasters that could threaten hundreds of thousands of lives. An illegal shipment of weapons or explosives, for example, could wind up in the hands of a sleeper terrorist cell, which could then plot dozens of attacks against major population centers. Another example would be a poorly-marked container full of radioactive materials -- if handled improperly, thousands of tons of cargo and hundreds of port/shipper personnel could be contaminated. 

When it comes to preparing for a potential disaster caused by one of the above threats, the first step must always be an effective screening program. If ports do not know what kind of threat their emergency responders will be facing, how can they effectively combat it? This is the first way that screening impacts disaster preparedness -- it gives emergency responders a heads-up as to what they will be facing, because preparations for a large-scale chemical fire are far different than those for a suspected dirty bomb. 

Effective cargo screening also helps ports put the proper resources in the right places. By leveraging the latest and greatest technology for screening -- whether it’s a new automated gantry scanning machine or a software algorithm that can automatically detect certain cargo-borne threat patterns -- human resources, such as added security or a bigger and faster disaster response team, can be put towards areas where technology cannot help. 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is also trying to help out when it comes to helping ports prepare for potential disasters through screening. The agency formerly mandated 100 percent cargo screening, where every cargo container reaching U.S. shores had to be scanned for potential dangers. In 2012, however, this mandate will change. 

Next year, the DHS will mandate a layered approach to port screening -- rather than scanning every single cargo container slated to land on U.S. shores, authorities will leverage intelligence sources to make better-informed decisions when it comes to cargo.  Much like the TSA’s long-awaited “trusted traveler” program, shippers will be placed into different categories depending on the risk associated with them and their cargo. This will determine the level of scrutiny their containers will undergo. 

This means that ports can be even better prepared for any disasters-in-waiting that might enter, as they’ll know about such threats well before they arrive. 

Just like aviation and mass transit, there’s no single silver bullet for ports to prepare for a disaster. But, as in other industries, prevention is the best way to prepare, by leveraging an effective screening program and timely manifest/cargo data, a port can not only prepare itself for the worst, but it can strive to keep the worst from actually happening. 

Andrew Goldsmith is the vice president of global marketing for Rapiscan Systems, Inc. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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