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Improving Ferry Security

​FERRY BOATS in the United States—which carry an estimated 82 million passengers on more than 25 million vehicles—remain vulnerable to terrorist attacks and more must be done to ensure their safety, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

While there have been no credible threats regarding a ferry boat attack in the United States, the GAO report highlighted numerous attacks on ferries in the Philippines in which more than 100 people have been killed or wounded. The GAO report also cites a 2006 Rand Corporation study that found ferries to be particularly attractive to terrorists because they are easy targets and could kill a large number of people while garnering media attention.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which has jurisdiction, has identified terrorist groups with the capabilities of attacking ferry boats if desired. In the Coast Guard’s most recent assessment, dated April 2010, it concluded that the risk to ferry boats is increasing, “as evidenced by attacks against land-based mass transit and other targets overseas,” according to the GAO report.

In response to the threat, various responsible parties—including the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), other law enforcement organizations, and ferry operators themselves— have taken steps to improve security.

Among the steps already taken, according to the GAO report, “The Coast Guard also reported that it conducts operational activities to secure ferries, including conducting boat escorts of ferries, implementing positive control measures—that is, stationing armed Coast Guard personnel in key locations aboard a vessel to ensure that the operator maintains control—and providing a security presence through various actions.”

In addition, according to the GAO, “TSA supports ferry security by demonstrating a security presence, providing training, and implementing pilot programs involving security technologies. Providing a security presence, TSA’s Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams [were deployed] ferry systems 319 times since calendar year 2006. Law enforcement officials in one location stated they had participated in one VIPR operation each year from 2007 to 2009. In another location, the Coast Guard Sector cited VIPR operations among other best practices for ensuring the security of high capacity passenger ferries.”

“CBP reports that it conducts inspections on international ferries that arrive in or are bound for a U.S. port, and deploys radiation detection technologies at international ferry crossings,” the report states, adding, “By October 2009, CBP officials reported that 11 radiation portal monitors had been deployed, and in July 2010, officials reported that 4 additional devices were estimated to be deployed by 2013.”

For their part, the GAO notes that, “ferry operators we interviewed reported using measures such as establishing a security presence that may be provided by either their own law enforcement branches or state and local law enforcement agencies; conducting security sweeps of the ferries; implementing access controls such as cameras, posting signage advising of security procedures, and installing proximity card door systems; and screening vehicles.” The GAO reports, however, that the Coast Guard is missing opportunities to further enhance ferry security.

The GAO report points out that the Coast Guard is on record in 2004 as stating that it should reassess its vehicle screening requirements but that no plans have been made as of now to conduct an evaluation of existing vehicle screening procedures.

The GAO report recommends that the Coast Guard assess the security studies available, reassess its screening, and undertake additional screening of vehicles. DHS officials have concurred with the report.

To gather information for the report, the GAO interviewed, among others, Coast Guard and U.S. Navy intelligence personnel, personnel from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Park Police officials responsible for ferry security. The GAO authors also spoke with personnel from seven nonfederal law enforcement agencies working in this sector. They observed six ferry systems in action and spoke with seven ferry operators or port authorities.