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The SAFE Port Act’s Unity of Effort

Achieving better port security through the Interagency Operations Center concept

Though threats to their security continue, America’s ports are undoubtedly better protected today than a decade ago. That’s because the U.S. Coast Guard is constantly working in more than 35 ports to improve cooperation with other federal, state, and local agencies to more efficiently allocate its resources and to bolster its situational awareness. Securing U.S. ports is a ceaseless responsibility and one that requires much more than physical assets. It requires multiagency coordination and a true unity of effort.

That idea was the central tenet of the 2006 Security and Accountability for Every (SAFE) Port Act. SAFE Port mandated that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) establish Interagency Operations Centers (IOCs) in key ports to improve security through multiagency communication and coordination. The Coast Guard was designated by DHS to establish IOCs. In response, the service is implementing an IOC concept of operations, which includes using a newly developed software system that will enable multiagency coordination and information sharing, and in some ports establishing an IOC facility.

The basic IOC framework is designed to enable a unified coalition of port agencies from local law enforcement to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to the U.S. Navy to conduct and apply risk-based operational planning for efficient, collaborative use of their common resources for improved port security.

In the early stages of the IOC program, these multiagency coalitions in each port were envisioned as operating in dedicated bricks-and-mortar facilities where each would have personnel staffing a common watch floor. Indeed, the term “Interagency Operations Center” conjures images of 9-1-1-like call and monitoring centers wherein national and local authorities coordinate action and respond to threats face to face.

But Coast Guard Cmdr. Carissa April said that limiting the vision for IOCs to building facilities or staffing watch floors misses an enormous opportunity to transform the way we protect the maritime domain.

Interagency Operations Center ribbon cutting

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., cuts the ribbon to officially mark the opening of the new Interagency Operations Center for maritime operations during a ceremony at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Yerba Buena Island Base, Calif., June 28, 2011. Pelosi was the keynote speaker at the event, which was attended by dozens of federal, state, and local agency representatives along with other members of the maritime industry. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sondra-Kay Kneen-Rivera

April is chief of the Interagency Operations Center Implementation Office, and she explained that the IOC at Charleston is perhaps most representative of the early idea of an interagency “center,” though its origins actually predate SAFE Port. Instead, Charleston’s IOC grew out of a 2003 initiative called Project SeaHawk, which called for establishment of a Charleston Harbor Operations Center, built to house “agencies responsible for maritime homeland security, and an interagency task force to jointly address intermodal transportation security issues in and around the port.”

Construction of the facility went forward with funding from the FY 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. Today, it has been recast as an IOC, a common space where personnel from multiple local, state, and federal agencies work side by side and meet daily.

As compelling as the Charleston IOC model may be, April explained that attempting to collocate government agencies creates other hurdles, particularly in ports where the relevant authorities have existing investments in their own command centers and work spaces.

Additionally, the agencies may be spread over a multi-state area, as with the Port of New York and New Jersey. Moving office facilities and the jobs inside them to one central location does not work in all locales. As poor as the arguments against consolidation may seem, such entrenchment combined with funding issues has made standing up common IOC facilities largely impractical in many ports.

So, the Coast Guard focused its efforts on defining the process by which multiagency coalitions in each port would conduct integrated vessel targeting, operational planning, and operational monitoring. Achieving such effective integration of intelligence, communication, and resources, rather than simply constructing facilities, is the real goal of the DHS IOC concept of operations.

What the Coast Guard has really been focusing on is delivering a framework by which multiple agencies can effectively create an operational picture of the security situation in each port and collaboratively apply their resources and authorities. “The idea of just building a building and not really working on what was going to go on in that building wasn’t going to provide the kind of value we hope to deliver,” said April.

“We’re still going to have to get together once or twice a week. We’ll still have to work together to conduct integrated operational planning. It’s harder to do an interagency plan than it is to do a dozen single agency plans but the product is better so we believe the result is worth the extra effort.”

The Coast Guard and its partners will still look for opportunities to collocate agencies’ work spaces and share watch floors in ports where it is geographically, logistically, and financially feasible.

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Eric Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...