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'Virtual Port' Boosts Emergency Preparedness

June 3, 2014

 

 

Two ships collide. Or the ground shakes. If there’s an emergency at the Port of Long Beach, response teams first need to know what and where it is.

Next, they must pinpoint what’s around it: people, hazardous materials that may be stored nearby, and hidden infrastructure such as water, gas, oil and sewage pipelines underground or underwater.

If there’s a fire or a release of volatile chemicals, weather conditions such as which way the wind is blowing and how fast also matter.

Thanks to the Virtual Port Project, those details and more will soon be at the fingertips of the Port of Long Beach’s security team and partner agencies. The system integrates information from more than 50 data sources into comprehensive real-time images the agencies can access simultaneously to coordinate and deploy response teams, tackle the problem and restore port operations faster and more efficiently than ever before.

Virtual Port Project

The Virtual Port Project, which the Port will bring online this month, combines these data sets into a one-stop source that generates a complete operational floor plan of activity in and around the Port, said Director of Security Randy Parsons. The system, believed to be the most sophisticated and far-reaching of its kind in the U.S., ushers in a new era of security that will support daily operations, incident response and business recovery within and beyond the harbor complex, Parsons said. 

“This project is a regional asset with a maritime focus whose perimeter stretches out as far as the data. The potential value is beyond everyone’s expectations,” Parsons said.

Developed over the last two years, the customized mapping technology connects all Port security hardware and software to create a montage of what’s happening with as much – or as little – detail as needed. Images can be layered in 2-D or 3-D, Parsons said. “We can pull out and stack the data sets that make the most sense to determine the how best to respond to a given situation.”

The technology promises to be valuable tool for daily operations, said Capt. James Jenkins, Sector Commander and Captain of the Port for the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles – Long Beach. As the nation’s busiest port complex, the harbor is so vast that it’s almost impossible to have a single physical location where all the agencies can hold a daily briefing, Jenkins said.

“Instead of all of us coming together in the same room, we’ll have a virtual space where we can meet.”

On a daily basis, the Virtual Port Project will offer Port security partners precision awareness of any number of situations such as ship movements, traffic tie-ups and rail operations. The technology is designed to connect with all surveillance and detection systems, including several hundred cameras with land, air and water coverage, and sonar and radar equipment. The Port and its security partners also can access the information in the field.

Relative to incident response, the system is designed for multiple agencies to coordinate and maximize their resources. In the case of an earthquake, for example, law enforcement, fire and rescue and public health teams are going to be involved, Parsons said. “The system becomes a virtual command center where we can immediately assess the risk to determine who and what equipment is needed where.”

As for business recovery, the Virtual Port Project is designed to help officials quickly identify which areas of the port have been affected and to what degree; which roads, waterways and terminals may remain open; what action is needed to resume cargo operations throughout the harbor as swiftly as possible.

 “Virtual Port can direct recovery in a triaged fashion,” Parsons said. “It will enable us to collect data and push it out to ships, terminal operators, trucking and rail, which benefits the entire supply chain.”

Going live this month will begin with a soft rollout to evaluate the system and make any needed adjustments. But even in development, the technology has proven to be impressive, Parsons said. “Several months ago, we were in a meeting when a vessel collision happened and we pulled it up on screen. Virtual Port was able to instantly identify the two vessels, provide information on the cargo they were carrying, inform us that one ship was at anchor and the other was in motion, and track where the moving vessel came from.”

The Port of Long Beach developed Virtual Port Project with the help of numerous local, state and federal law enforcement and public safety agencies. The Port’s primary partners have been the Coast Guard, the Long Beach Police Department, the Long Beach Fire Department, the Los Angeles Port Police and the Marine Exchange of Southern California. Others include the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the FBI.

Creating a system that meets the needs of multiple agencies, including their cyber-security requirements, was no small challenge. Jenkins, whose agency has the ultimate authority to shut down port operations in the event of an emergency, praised the Port of Long Beach for its “collaborative approach.”

“As the lead agency, the Port of Long Beach has done a great job of bringing us all in early in the process and getting ideas on the design, what capabilities to build in, and what’s going to be useful for the whole team,” Jenkins said.

Other challenges included obtaining licensing agreements and getting unique databases to talk to each other, Parsons said. Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (Esri) was the consultant brought in to develop, launch and support the Virtual Port Project.  The Redlands-based information technology company, which specializes in geospatial analysis, provided the hardware, software, data acquisition, user licenses, programming, installation and training for the Virtual Port Project. As the system goes live, Esri will provide ongoing technical support.

The Virtual Port Project represents an investment of about $8.5 million, nearly 78 percent of which has been funded by state and federal port and urban area security grants. That’s a bargain in a post-9/11 world in which hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to beef up port security and studies have shown an attack on the LA/Long Beach harbor complex could cripple the entire U.S. economy, Parsons said.

“Protecting this asset is a job bigger than any one agency. The key is integration, and Virtual Port exponentially increases our efficiency by broadening our vision of what’s happening.”

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