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Officials, public grapple with city's port security

Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2001

In many Southeast Alaska communities, the downtown dock is a sidewalk, picnic area and concert venue.

For some towns, it also is a security risk.

As the U.S. Coast Guard, communities, cruise lines and the public grapple with a changing security climate after Sept. 11, dock access has been hot topic in Southeast. Local officials say they hope to improve security and maintain public access.

In Juneau, city Port Director Joe Graham and the Juneau Harbor Board are revising the city's 1997 emergency communications plan at the request of the Coast Guard. A public hearing likely will be scheduled for December, Graham said.

The plan outlines what the city's Docks and Harbors Department would do when faced with low, medium and high threat levels. Under the current plan, Juneau's wharves were blocked off after Sept. 11 and pedestrian access was restricted.

In updating the federally-required plan, the city's objective is to provide additional security and year-round public access to the docks, Graham said.

"I personally feel that the seawalk is important. We want to maintain pedestrian access as much as possible," he said.

Although funding will be a hurdle, Graham has broached the possibility of providing armed security guards on the dock to screen pedestrians under certain scenarios, he said. He notes there may be opposition to the idea, but said it is better than an alternative of no pedestrian access.

Under a high security threat in the current plan, ships would not be allowed to dock alongside the pier. Passengers and their baggage would be transferred to a secured unloading area.

The Coast Guard also requires cruise ship companies to submit security plans for review. Graham said the city's plan will be written to correspond with cruise line procedures.

Cruise lines implemented additional screening measures for passengers and crews after Sept. 11 and are re-deploying ships that were traveling in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, said John Hansen, president of the North West CruiseShip Association.

As a result, three cruise ships that wouldn't have plied Alaska waters will be coming to Southeast Alaska in summer 2002, he said. Cruise line officials also are scheduled to discuss security measures at Alaska ports with the Coast Guard, he said.

Alan Kinsolving, who takes lunchtime walks along Juneau's dock, said he'd like to see the docks open to pedestrians. If adequate security can't be provided, he suggested splitting the dock in two. Cruise ships could get half and the public could get half, he said.

As captain of the port for Southeast Alaska, Coast Guard Cmdr. Steve Ohnstad will review port security plans. Federal regulations provide policy guidance, but Ohnstad said the Coast Guard is taking into account the unique situation that Alaska's ports face.

"Some of the guidance doesn't envision a port like you have in Juneau where the pier becomes part of the park or the sidewalk," he said. "The ball at this point is in the city's court or the port's court to develop a plan to submit to us for approval."

The Coast Guard has met with officials from most of Southeast Alaska's ports, Ohnstad said. With piers that are integrated into the downtown waterfront, Ketchikan and Juneau are in similar position, while cruise ships in Haines and Skagway dock at piers that are perpendicular to the shoreline, he said.

"We're all going to have to put on our thinking caps and find something that's workable for the ports, workable for the ships and workable for the local community," he said. "We're expecting that we will have full plans submitted and in place before the first cruise ships come back."

Although some people have suggested that a 150- or 100-foot security zone around a vessel is needed, Ohnstad said the Coast Guard hasn't mandated a specific distance.

"We've asked the ports to do the best they can with what they have," he said.

As an example, a 150-foot security zone in Ketchikan would shut off access to two small-boat harbors and close half of Front Street, the town's main thoroughfare, according to Lori Kolanko, port and harbors director for the city of Ketchikan.

Cars, buses and trucks drive along Ketchikan's cruise ship dock year-round and it has served as a parking lot in the winter.

"We want to leave it open to the public as much as we can," she said.

Ketchikan may hire a full-time or part-time harbor employee on a temporary basis to remain at the cruise ship dock during the summer, and Ketchikan police will have a designated officer patrol the downtown and port area, Kolanko said.

The city also is discussing traffic barricades and identification badges for harbor staff, bus drivers and other port users, she said.

Because of distance and weather, Alaska probably faces a smaller risk of terrorism than other places in the country, said 17th Coast Guard District Rear Adm. Thomas Barrett. But the consequences if something were to happen are unacceptable, he added.

"We are on what I would call a heightened state of security since Sept. 11; that hasn't changed," he said. "What that means is that we have no specific threat identified for Alaska ports. Nonetheless, the overall threat environment is high and somewhat unpredictable so we've been maintaining a heightened state of security."

Nationwide, the Coast Guard requires foreign vessels to give 96-hour notice before entering a port, giving officials more time to check crew and passenger lists against national intelligence databases. The Coast Guard used to require 24-hour notice.

In Alaska, the Coast Guard has maintained an on-the-water presence at Valdez since in Sept. 11 and provided vessel escorts. Border patrols at Dixon Entrance south of Ketchikan have increased. So have shoreside, vessel and terminal inspections, Barrett said.

In terms of dock access, Barrett said the Coast Guard needs to assure safety, but also wants to make sure activity can take place.

"There will be increased security. It's not going to go back to the way it was before Sept. 11," he said. "We've got new threats and that requires new ways of thinking."

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.



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