U.S. ports begin catastrophic terrorist attack drills

Port Security Training Exercises Program brings together government and private-sector officials.

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.

The federal Port Security Training Exercises Program (PortSTEP) brings 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 Wednesday.

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 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, Puerto Rico. 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 ports."

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, Holmes said.

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 insights.

"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."