An interesting story today from the AP that looks at security activities at Port Newark, and recounts an incident there several years ago:
Five years ago, as he stood next to the trailer that was hauled from Port Newark, the cell phone of Kevin McCabe, the seaport’s chief inspector for what would later become the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, bleated urgent rings from high-level state and federal officials demanding to know what was inside the container.
“I told them, `We don’t know yet, but I’m standing about three feet away from it, so if anything happens, I’ll be the first to know,”‘ McCabe recalled.
Sweat poured and pulses raced as authorities pondered what their next move should be. They were minutes away from a decision to shut down the seaport, Newark International Airport, and part of the New Jersey Turnpike.
Just in time, more sophisticated radiation detection equipment arrived from New York City in an unheard-of 22 minutes, and was able to determine that the cargo inside was harmless, and that the readings were generated by bolts of Egyptian carpet, a source of naturally occurring radiation.
“The economic consequences of shutting those things down would have been immense, but we were afraid we could have had a real potential catastrophe on our hands,” McCabe said.
This story raises an interesting question: what are the appropriate conditions for a decision to shut down a port, in response to a suspicious incident? It’s also a timely question, in the wake of a similar scare that shut down part of the Port of Seattle earlier this week. The reaction to this recent incident was less severe than the potential consequences described in the Newark anecdote above, but we’re still operating in a mode where the natural reaction to an anomalous incident is to escalate the response in a way that is disruptive to port operations.
Perhaps this is the only good option, given the need to quickly protect people and mitigate against the potential consequences of a threat. Or are there ways to improve system awareness and not be forced to make these costly decisions? This is a challenging issue for the agencies responsible for port security, and one that is easy to second-guess after any incident. I hope and expect that the key agencies (e.g. Coast Guard, CBP, FBI, local entities) will continue to work on this issue, consistent with the Maritime Operational Threat Response plan, and make the port system more resilient in the face of these threats.