Threat of ground transport terrorism still very real, says Iowa State professor

AMES, Iowa -- Domestic terrorism fears were once again heightened with the recent arrests in a plot to ignite a fuel pipeline feeding New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. But while much of the fears and subsequent security measures focus on the airline industry, an Iowa State University logistics and supply chain management professor has assessed the terrorism threat that exists in ground transport.

Professor Mike Crum -- who also is associate dean of graduate programs in ISU's College of Business -- documented ground transportation security issues for a chapter titled "Transportation Management" for the "Handbook of Global Supply Chain Management" (Sage Publishing, 2007).

He joined with researchers from the University of Kentucky and Lehigh University to conduct a survey-based study of supply chain security. Crum also thoroughly reviewed academic and trade literature and talked with dozens of transportation industry sources.

He reports that security in ground transport has improved considerably since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with new measures put in place both by government and private firms. But there are still plenty of holes.

"We're very vulnerable," said Crum. "The surface transportation industries operate over hundreds of thousands of miles of public and private facilities, employ millions of workers, and serve thousands of freight and passenger terminals. On the freight side, one must also consider that there are multiple parties involved besides the transportation carriers -- i.e., the shippers and receivers of the goods -- and they have an impact on the safety and security of the shipments. Securing such a vast and complex system is a huge challenge."

Deterrence and detection are key

Deterrence and detection are two key elements of transportation security programs, Crum emphasized. Deterrence refers to security practices, infrastructure and technology that discourage or prevent theft and terrorism, while detection refers to discovery of theft or product/shipment tampering during or after the fact.

"Fences around manufacturing plants and distribution centers, locks on containers and equipment, and employee identity verification are common methods of physical deterrence," he wrote. "Physical inspections of shipments and monitoring devices (e.g. surveillance cameras, satellite tracking of vehicles and containers) are common means of detecting security breaches. Real-time monitoring devices, in conjunction with quick response capabilities, may also be deterrents by lessening the probability of success they may discourage attempts at theft or terrorism."

Crum said that trucking companies are certainly paying more attention to both the security of their terminals and their vehicles. And many are using new technology to do that.

"A big percentage of the large and midsize trucking firms have global satellite tracking capabilities. Not only does this enable them to keep their customers apprised of the location and expected delivery times of their loads, it is also an integral part of their security programs," he said. "For example, many are doing more of what's called geo-fencing. That is, if a truck strays too far off of a designated route, that will prompt a follow-up to contact the driver and make sure everything is okay. Carriers also have the capability of shutting down vehicles remotely."

National driver ID program would help too

Another key security initiative is the government's attempt to install a national driver ID program -- creating a more centralized, unified database, according to Crum. The system will allow personnel involved in the transport process to determine that the driver behind the wheel is supposed to be there. Crum notes that port authorities are already being more diligent in checking the identity of drivers when they're picking up containers at the port.

But even with all the current advancements, there's this sobering reality.

"There's a tremendous amount going on (in terms of security), but with a country this big and a society this open, as we well know, if there's a will to breach security, then it can be done," he said. "In the case of terrorist attacks, you might ask, 'What can you do if terrorists are willing to give up their lives?' Well, they may be willing to die if the probability of success is at a certain level. So you have to lower that probability, for example, by installing multiple layers of defense. If they beat one level, they still have to beat a second or a third. Increasing the probability of failure may be an effective deterrent."

Crum concludes that a successful security solution, like any successful operation, requires strategic deployment of technology, design of processes, and education and training of people. Additionally, it requires awareness and collaboration of all parties involved in the transportation -- customers as well as the transportation service providers.

Finally, he said security programs must continually be reviewed and improved because "you have to stay at least one step ahead of the bad guys."