Coordinating communication: new port facility enhances emergency response information gathering



Russell Whitmarsh, Chief of Police, Port of Houston Authority and President, IAASP, Houston, USA, & Derik Latham, BC Ministry of Transport and IAASP, BC, Canada


Port police hurricane response

In the wake of the recent disasters brought on by the hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we would be remiss if we did not pay our thanks to those who did what they could in response with their aid, donations, and kindness. The State of Texas was not only hit by one of the major storms, but it also acted as refuge to those who were impacted by the events. The help and support from the State of Texas is ongoing and greatly appreciated.

The Port of Houston and its Command Centre staff have worked continuously in hurricane response and have put forth a tremendous effort, and been rewarded with success. In Chief Whitmarsh’s own words: “This building is self-sustaining with power and water to deal with any level of emergency… We are prepared to respond to any crisis.”

And respond they did! The Port of Houston participated in one of the most demanding disaster management exercises for US ports to date. We are confident that we are learning from these experiences and that we will be better prepared in the future – our work continues.

As a refresher and reminder to everyone about what exactly the Command Centre is and what its capabilities are, below is an overview, reprinted with kind permission from the latest IAASP yearbook.

Port of Houston Command Centre

If a hurricane were to strike the Houston-Galveston region or if a terrorist were to attack the port, communication would be a key response component. However, modern business communications tools such as e-mail and cell phones are not as reliable as oldfashioned face-to-face contact.

To facilitate immediate and accurate communication exchange, the Port of Houston Authority designed and constructed the Port Coordination Center (PCC). This facility serves as a ‘command centre’ for the Port Coordination Team, which consists of security personnel from the PHA, the U.S. Coast Guard, the FBI, Customs and Border Protection, and various local and national police agencies.

“The Port of Houston is a complex and sprawling port, like no other in the country,” said Russell Whitmarsh, Chief of the port authority’s police department. “Responding to any type of emergency – be it a natural occurrence, a chemical plant situation or any type of security threat – would be daunting without a means of immediate and reliable communication.” Located on port authority property, the PCC is staffed around the clock by port police. The central communications room is permanently set up with computers and other communications devices; personnel from the various Port Coordination Team members have assigned seating to ease the flow of communication “If the PCC were activated, information would flow from the various agencies and funnel to Coast Guard Capt. Rick Kaser and the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Office,” said Whitmarsh. “This centre would be the portal of information to and from the Coast Guard and various water-front facilities along the Houston Ship Channel.”

Testing the system

To test the communication system, the Port Coordination Team conducted a drill. The focus was to push the centre’s ability to handle an influx of calls, emails, faxes, etc. “We learned the volume of communication traffic that we are capable of handling,” stated Whitmarsh. “We found some areas that we are beefing up, and we expect our process to continue to improve with more training. Just as avenues of communication are always evolving, our coordination centre will grow and improve with technology.” The ability to respond rapidly and accurately will ensure that the ship channel returns to business as usual, said Kaser, who is both commanding officer and Captain of the Port for the Houston-Galveston-Texas City-Freeport port region. “With the PCC, the port community is able to look, see and track the status of an emergency at a physical plant or on a ship as well as track vessel movement in various policing agencies along the Houston Ship Channel or equally the ship channel,” Kaser said. “We will handle the response based on information and intelligence gathered from both the local and national levels.”

With this supply of information, the Coast Guard as well as the maritime industry can activate their security plans and communicate back to the captain of the port. Based on the free flow of information, the Coast Guard can start moving vessel traffic safely again. “The criticality of re-opening the port is really important,” he said. “All of our petroleum operations make us a vitally important component of the economy. We supply the oil and gasoline needs for a large region of the nation, therefore we are steadfast in our protection of the port’s facilities.” To assure that the PCC is ever-ready to ramp up staffing, the building was designed with numerous system backups, Whitmarsh said. “We have many hardware redundancies, and our backups have backups,” he said. “This building is self-sustaining with power and water to deal with any level of emergency. The ports of New York and Los Angeles have communications centres, but those facilities are not as sophisticated and self-sustaining as ours is. We are prepared to respond to any crisis.”

Chief Russell Whitmarsh talks about the PCC in his own words
Filling a need

One of the first questions I was asked, after learning we had received some of the grant funding needed to build the Port of Houston Authority Command Centre, or what we call the PCC was “command of what?” It is still a very good question and one that deserves answering.

Its genesis began in knowing that while we knew we would need a place for centralisation of our port surveillance and alarm systems, we also had ‘other’ needs. For example, we also needed to upgrade our radio system to improve the security of the area we work out of. To meet these and other current changing demands and also to have a self-supportive centre that our Police, Marine Fire, and Security could continue to operate during times of severe weather conditions, loss of power/water, or extreme security incidents/events, we recognised we needed to change also. So to meet the Port of Houston Authority security requirements, we adjusted to become better capable and defined – and today, we are really just in the very early stages of all this change.

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