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Mandatory AIS, licensing shelved

Small-boat terrorism summit persuades Homeland Security planners to seek other options

Small-boat terrorism summit persuades Homeland Security planners to seek other options

Boater licensing and mandatory AIS are scratched for now from the arsenal of weapons the Department of Homeland Security is considering for protecting against terrorist attack from small boats.

Homeland Security in January released its report on last June’s National Small Vessel Security Summit. The recommendations are based on two days of discussions with pleasure boaters, commercial operators, police and local officials about ways to protect ports, terminals and cities. The 122-page document, authored by Homeland Security’s research arm, says mandatory Automatic Identification Systems on small boats probably is not an effective way to finger terrorist vessels.

AIS is required on ships and enables them to “see” one another on radar and gives port traffic controllers a way to track and identify them. (AIS automatically transmits their IDs and other information.) But for small boats, AIS was judged too costly. The report also maintained vessel traffic controllers couldn’t keep track of all those “blips” on their radars if every pleasure boat had one. What’s more, terrorists could slip through undetected just by not having AIS, the report says. It recommends finding cheaper ways to identify and track small craft.

“We are looking at other alternatives. We’re looking at all alternatives,” says Robert Gauvin, a Coast Guard technical adviser who helped organize the summit. He says no particular technology has an edge.

The report suggests looking at Radio Frequency Identification, a technology that uses radio waves to read information embedded in a smart chip. Fixed to products on store shelves, the smart chip can be used to track inventory; on a car, it can help prevent theft; on livestock, it serves as an identifier. DHS already is testing RFID by putting chips on border entry and exit forms to help authorities track visitors entering and leaving the country.

The Coast Guard says it also needs a way to identify boat operators on the water. The report of the DHS Small Vessel Security Summit, available online at (search for “small vessel security summit”), leaves open the option of boater licensing — specifically, a boat operator endorsement similar to that for motorcyclists or truck drivers on a driver’s license. The Coast Guard, however, isn’t pursuing boater licensing, Gauvin says, preferring instead mandatory boater education, which puts an identification card of some kind in a boater’s hands to show he or she has passed a boating safety test.

“The Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard [are] not considering licensing of recreational boaters in any way,” says Gauvin, in an e-mail to Soundings. Because education reduces boating deaths and injuries, “We are proposing working with the states to establish minimum educational requirements as part of our safe boating efforts.”

A national database

Gauvin, who also spoke to Soundings in a telephone interview, says the Coast Guard also is ratcheting up work on a national computerized database of all registered boats — a program Congress authorized seven years ago. The database would be accessible to law enforcement officers on the water and would help them identify a boat, its owner, his or her address, particulars about the boat, its hull identification number and other information from its registration number.

State participation in this Vessel Identification System is voluntary. Last October, the Coast Guard sent out a memorandum of understanding to states, inviting them to participate, says Jeff Hoedt, chief of the Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division. Fifteen states have signed on, and he says most others plan to get involved. “Those [responses] are coming in, and we’re excited about it,” he says.

Eventually, the Coast Guard wants to link VIS with other databases that would enable an officer to determine if a boat is stolen, if there are any warrants out on the owner, or if the boat has any outstanding liens on it.

One of Homeland Security’s big concerns at the summit was terrorist use of a small boat to detonate a dirty bomb in a port or city. Last September — just three months after the summit — DHS inaugurated pilot programs in the Port of San Diego and in Puget Sound to detect radiological and nuclear weapons on small commercial and recreational boats. The three-year, $10 million project puts hand-held, mobile and fixed-position detectors on police and Coast Guard boats and at locations in and around the ports to scan small boats for nuclear and radiological material.

Gauvin says DHS was looking at putting detectors on some small commercial vessels that log a lot of hours in port waters. “We’ll see how those [efforts] play out,” he says.


Among the report’s other recommendations:

• develop a national small-boat security strategy

• carefully weigh security regulations on the water against their cost to the small-boat owner in money and personal liberty

• better define the small-boat threat and identify specific local threats

• keep the small-boat community involved in addressing security

• get more funding to protect ports and waterways

• work with other nations in nipping the threat before it reaches our shores

• funnel pertinent intelligence to local users

• set up a hotline for reporting suspicious marine activity

DHS has started scheduling regional small-boat summits to take a look at local threats. The first of these, for the Great Lakes, was held Jan. 16 in Cleveland. Gauvin says small-boat security has a high priority at DHS. He expects the department to release its national small-boat security strategy by the end of March.

“A large part of the goals and objectives in the strategy document came from input received from the small-vessel stakeholders that participated in the national summit in June 2007,” he says.