Maritime Security:

Ferry Security Measures Have Been Implemented, but Evaluating Existing Studies Could Further Enhance Security

GAO-11-207: Published: Dec 3, 2010. Publicly Released: Dec 3, 2010.

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Ferries are a vital component of the U.S. transportation system and 2008 data show that U.S. ferries carried more than 82 million passengers and over 25 million vehicles. Ferries are also potential targets for terrorism in the United States and have been terrorist targets overseas. GAO was asked to review ferry security, and this report addresses the extent to which (1) the Coast Guard, the lead federal agency for maritime security, assessed risk in accordance with the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) guidance and what risks it identified; and (2) federal agencies, ferry and facility operators, and law enforcement entities have taken actions to protect ferries and their facilities. GAO reviewed relevant requirements, analyzed 2006 through 2009 security operations data, interviewed federal and industry officials, and made observations at five domestic and one international locations with varying passenger volumes and relative risk profiles. Site visits provided information on security, but were not projectable to all ports. This is the public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in October 2010. Information that DHS deemed sensitive has been redacted.

The Coast Guard assessed the risk--including threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences--to ferries in accordance with DHS guidance on risk assessment and, along with other maritime stakeholders, identified risks associated with explosive devices, among other things. Although in April 2010, Coast Guard intelligence officials stated that there have been no credible terrorist threats identified against ferries and their facilities in at least the last 12 months, maritime intelligence officials have identified the presence of terrorist groups with the capability of attacking a ferry. Many of the Coast Guard, ferry system and law enforcement officials GAO spoke with generally believe ferries are vulnerable to passenger- or vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, although not all ferry systems transport vehicles. The Coast Guard has also identified the potential consequences of an attack, which could include possible loss of life and negative economic effects. In April 2010, Coast Guard officials stated that the relative risk to ferries is increasing, as evidenced by attacks against land-based mass transit and other targets overseas. Federal agencies--including the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)--ferry operators, and law enforcement entities report that they have taken various actions to enhance the security of ferries and facilities and have implemented related laws, regulations, and guidance, but the Coast Guard may be missing opportunities to enhance ferry security. Security measures taken by the Coast Guard have included providing a security presence on ferries during transit. Coast Guard officials also reported that they are revising regulations to improve ferry operator training and developing guidance on screening. Ferry operators' security actions have included developing and implementing security plans and screening vehicles and passengers, among other things. However, the Coast Guard had not evaluated and, if determined warranted, acted on all findings and recommendations resulting from five agency-contracted studies on ferry security completed in 2005 and 2006. Reports from these studies included several recommendations for standardizing and enhancing screening across ferry operators. Standards for internal control in the federal government state that agencies should ensure that findings of audits and other reviews are promptly resolved, and that managers take action to evaluate and resolve matters identified in these audits and reviews. As a result of our work on ferry security, in August 2010, Coast Guard officials stated they planned to review the reports. Taking action to address the recommendations in these reports, if determined warranted by the Coast Guard's evaluation, could enhance ferry security. Furthermore, Coast Guard documents from 2004 state that the agency should reassess vehicle screening requirements pending the completion of the ferry security reports or if the threat changes. However, no specific plans were in place to reassess these requirements. By taking action to reassess its screening requirements, the agency would be better positioned to determine if changes are warranted. GAO recommends that the Commandant of the Coast Guard, after evaluating the completed studies on ferry security, reassess vehicle screening requirements and take further actions to enhance security, if determined warranted. DHS concurred with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Based on our review of the Coast Guard's efforts to prevent terrorist attacks on large passenger ferries we recommended that the Coast Guard review the findings of its 2005 and 2006 ferry security reports and take appropriate actions to address the findings and recommendations identified in these reports. To demonstrate the actions taken to implement this recommendation the Coast Guard provided documents that summarized their overall response, along with a charter for the Ferry Security Working Group, a revised Breach of Security process guide, a 2011 guidance message regarding Coast Guard and Transportation Security Administration Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response Team coordination efforts, and an update to the Washington State Ferries Alternative Security Program. These documents demonstrated that the Coast Guard established a government/industry working group in Spring 2011 to obtain input on the results of the ferry security studies and their recommendations, assessed current domestic and international security measures being carried out by the ferry industry, and evaluated any recommendations for policy or regulatory changes to address perceived gaps in ferry security. The Coast Guard also developed additional guidance with ferry security partners. Based on the working group's review, current standards were determined to be sufficient and no changes to the standards were recommended or undertaken. Because the Coast Guard reviewed the studies as we recommended and determined whether additional action was needed or not based on the findings of these reports, we are closing this recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Coast Guard considers all known options for securing the ferry transportation system and is not missing opportunities to enhance ferry security, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, after fully evaluating the findings and recommendations from the Coast Guard's 2005 and 2006 ferry security reports, should take appropriate actions to address the findings and recommendations identified in these reports.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Additionally, we recommended that after the Coast Guard reviews the findings of the 2005 and 2006 ferry security reports it set vehicle screening requirements at an appropriate level that considers both the risks to and operating requirements of ferry systems. According to the its written response to our follow up and the charter of the Ferry Security Working Group, the Coast Guard worked with the working group and considered the need for screening rate percentage changes. The group determined that current percentages were sufficient and hence no changes were made to current standards. Further, the Coast Guard responded to us that screening guidance and screening percentages will be regularly reviewed and reconsidered as part of the ongoing work of the working group to assure that changes in risk to ferries bring about appropriate adjustments. Because the Coast Guard, in conjunction with industry partners reviewed vehicle screening standards and considered the need for screening rate changes based on identified risks we are closing this recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Coast Guard considers all known options for securing the ferry transportation system and is not missing opportunities to enhance ferry security, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, upon review of the reports, should ensure that vehicle screening requirements are set at an appropriate level that considers both the risks to and operating requirements of ferry systems, and when warranted, reassess screening requirements for ferries and make changes as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

 

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