Maine Port Tries to Hire Federal Baggage Checkers

Due to budget constraints, baggage screeners won't be deployed to the Port of Portland in Maine, the chief of the Transportation Security Administration (search) wrote in a letter to the port's director this week.

TSA New England regional spokeswoman Ann Davis told that Adm. James M. Loy wrote Capt. Jeffrey Monroe offering to send TSA experts to visit the port and provide security consultation on how to best use the $1.3 million it recently received for port security.

TSA awarded $92 million in port security grants in 2002 and another $170 million this June.

"All the modes of transportation are important to us," Davis said. But, "all our human resources are focused on aviation right now."

A spokesman for Sen. Olympia Snowe (search), R-Me., said TSA staffers will meet with the senator's staff next week to discuss other options "to make sure this will go forward."

"I never take no for an answer," Monroe said. "We're going to make this work one way or another."

Aviation security has been the top priority since Sept. 11, 2001. On that morning, Abdulaziz Alomari (search) and Mohammed Atta (search) boarded a Boston-bound plane from the Portland International Jetport, which is also owned by the Port of Portland. Later that day, they sealed their names in history as two of the 19 terrorist hijackers who would crash four commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center (search), the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania.

After Sept. 11, Portland Jetport, along with hundreds of airports around the country, started beefing up its security with the help of the federally created Transportation Security Administration.

But now, the Port of Portland wants to go the extra mile and make sure its ferry and cruise ship passengers are screened the same way as its airport customers — federal baggage screeners and all.

"What's happening right now is people are paying more attention to the seaport" and security, said Monroe, who with the help of Snowe filed an application with the TSA in July to use homeland security funds to install the same screening processes at the port that are currently in the Jetport.

"What the airport screeners are meant to do is look for the things that pose a threat to aircraft. They would do the exact same thing on ships," Monroe said.

Portland is one of only a handful of U.S. ports that host international ferry services. Its international ferry transports about 200,000 people a year and over 30,000 vehicles; Portland's booming nightly international ferry service can carry up to 800 passengers and 200 cars on a single voyage and connects to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Portland's domestic ferries, serving the islands of Casco Bay (search), carry about 1 million people a year.

This year, 35 cruise ships stopped in Portland carrying over 40,000 passengers. In addition, the port has a weekly container feeder service connecting to Halifax, Nova Scotia (search), as well as bulk ships that move general cargo, paper products, scrap metal and forest products. The port is also the largest oil port on the East Coast, handling about 30 million tons of oil cargo annually.

The port wants to buy and install equipment both for pre-boarding screening and explosives detection screening of passengers and baggage. It is still working with TSA to try to work out a pilot project that could be a model for harbor and port security certification processes, much like that applied to aircrafts and airports by the Federal Aviation Administration (search).

"Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, security concerns have been examined in a variety of terrorist scenarios at U.S. ports, including those involving ferries and cruise ships," Snowe said in a statement. "The initiative of the Port of Portland to increase passenger safety services is a model to harbors and ports throughout the country."

Maine officials wanted to get the pilot program up and running by September, but are now looking at the end of the year as a deadline. In the meantime, the Department of Homeland Security is scheduled to release its final ferry security regulations this month. 

One expert indicated that the port doesn't need another program since more stringent maritime transportation security rules were established after Sept. 11, 2001.

"Most ports have existing procedures in place," said Chris Rawley, chief operating officer of Port Security Strategies (search).

"I don't see right off the bat how it's going to be more effective … I don't see where the value added in that is going to be," he said of adding federal baggage screeners at ports.

Already, cruise lines conduct baggage and passenger screening.

"There's a lot more that's gone on in terms of maritime security and aviation security since Sept. 11," said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines (search). "Fortunately, the maritime security initiatives that have been embraced internationally [after Sept. 11] are very similar to what the cruise lines have been doing" prior to Sept. 11.

Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, cruise lines implemented "Level 3" security measures, as outlined by the Coast Guard (search), including: screening all passenger baggage and carry-on bags; intensified passenger screening and verification of passenger identification; restricted access to sensitive vessel areas; and maintaining a 100-yard security zone around cruise ships.

"The experience for a cruise passenger is very similar to the experience that you have getting on board an airplane in terms of luggage screening, identification and providing the information to the cruise line," Crye said.

But that's merely one type of passenger service, and officials say more can be done to secure the ports, for instance, by screening people and baggage farther from the waterfront.

"Not only are you preventing threats from coming onto the vessel, you're also preventing threats from coming onto the terminal," Monroe said.