Tampa Port Strengthens Security with New Operations Center

TAMPA - In a major step to control access to the 5,000- acre Port Of Tampa, new security systems will come on line by month's end with the opening of a $16 million operations center and new gates at Hooker's Point.

The changes will enhance the security process, including random inspections and identification checks, that have been in place since the Sept. 11 attacks. Peter Miller, the port's security director, said the improvements include gates that eventually will enable more automated operations, as well as new fencing, lighting and security cameras.

"The idea is to improve security and ensure the movement of commerce," said Miller, a former British army and U.S. Marine Corps officer who oversaw port and air base security on assignment for U.S. Central Command. "Terrorist attacks are well- planned and seek the weakest link. They take plenty of time to prepare. Our task is to make the port an inhospitable place for them to operate."

Security at the Port of Tampa is complicated because not all of its facilities are within a common perimeter. That includes cruise ship operations along Channelside Drive and shipbuilders east of the cruise terminals.

"The port is like a checkerboard and is spread out geographically," said Port of Tampa spokeswoman Lori Musser. "In addition, private terminals are adjacent to port property, and that makes the job of security more challenging."

Nearly $40 million has been allocated to port security capital improvements and operational costs by a variety of government sources since the terrorist attacks, port records show. Security operations, including government and private workers, cost $3 million to $5 million a year, Musser said.

One feature of the new operations center at Hooker's Point is a control room to monitor a 150-camera, computer-driven surveillance network that will cover the port's interior and perimeter areas. Another control room will enable operators to oversee a sophisticated identification access system at the vehicle gates, which will replace a temporary gate a few hundred yards down the road.

The Transportation Worker Identification Credential, which will use biometric identifiers such as fingerprints, is intended for use nationwide. But developmental problems - including the assessment of technology and delays in Department of Homeland Security approval for prototype testing - have plagued the program. Until they are resolved, security guards at the new gate complex will check credentials and monitor access manually. The port also has installed a smaller access gate at Pendola Point. New gates are planned for the Port Sutton area and later at Port Ybor.

The Port of Tampa improvements include new lighting and 33 miles of fencing in a program that got its start more than a year before the 2001 attacks. Those changes were prompted when the state mandated more vigilance against illegal drug trade. The 12,000-square-foot operations center at Guy N. Verger and Maritime boulevards will provide office space for the layers of federal, county and private security groups working at the port. It provides weapons storage, a workout room and a sprawling open area on the second- floor that could be used as a command center during an emergency. But questions persist about whether enough has been done here and nationwide to protect ports.

Critics contend that there still are shortcomings in port security, particularly with container cargo - the international standard of large ocean- going freight. Some changes have included the tracking of overseas shipments to this country by the U.S. Customs Department and others. Federal agencies also now inspect some of the cargo on foreign shores before it's shipped to the United States.

Still, critics counter that not enough of the container cargo traffic is inspected before it comes into the United States. Published reports have said that 10 percent or less of the container cargo is inspected. Questions also have centered on how federal dollars are allocated. This month, the American Association of Port Authorities criticized the Bush Administration's proposed fiscal year 2006 budget. The Bush proposal would eliminate a designated port security grant program to reimburse U.S. maritime facilities for preapproved projects. Instead, port security projects could be rolled into a new program that would pit border security needs against domestic security programs.

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