By STEVE HUETTEL
Times Staff Writer
TAMPA — At a console with 17 screens, security officers can see boats zipping into off-limits areas, tankers hauling toxic chemicals and alcohol-fueled revelers scuffling in a Channelside parking garage.
The unblinking eyes of 200 closed-circuit cameras have watched over Tampa’s sprawling port since officials flipped the switch on the $1.57-million system nine months ago.
But there’s a catch: About half of the time there’s no one watching the camera images at the Tampa Port Authority’s security center.
Federal and state rules don’t require ports to have officers monitor security cameras during the lowest maritime security alert level, called Marsec 1, said Peter Miller, the agency’s security director.
Besides, he says, cameras are just part of a security network protecting the port. Three port security officers and three Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies patrol the property around the clock.
Private security officials hired by the agency check the identification of drivers entering the port through gates at Hooker’s Point and Pendola Point. Companies at the port maintain security guards inside their fences, Miller said.
“This (camera system) is just a part of our layered security,’’ he says. “This is our backup.’’
Some maritime security experts disagree. Camera systems are “a critical component of security’’ said K.C. Poulin, chief executive of Critical Intervention Services in Clearwater.
An officer sitting at a bank of camera monitors sees more places from more angles than one riding in a patrol car, said Poulin, whose company provides security evaluations and armed guards to businesses, including some at the port.
“If you have a tool to observe 200 locations at the port, wouldn’t you want to man it all the time?” he said
Other major Florida ports apparently think so. Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville’s port have officers monitoring camera systems 24 hours a day, every day. The Port of Miami will do the same once it takes over a new $10.7-million system from the contractor, spokeswoman Andria C. Muniz said.
All three ports are smaller in land area than the Port of Tampa and are easier to monitor “by people in a room looking at cameras,’’ Miller said.
Stationing an officer at a bank of screens may not help at all, says Ronald Thomason, vice president of SeaSecure of Fort Lauderdale, which calls itself the nation’s oldest and largest maritime security firm.
“After 20 minutes, a person can zone out,’’ he said. “It’s a very easy trap for people to fall into … to rely on technology and operate under the illusion of security.’’
Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Florida ports were beefing up security thanks to a state law passed in 2000 aimed at stopping drug trafficking and other crime.
SeaSecure evaluated Florida’s deep water ports and the state required them to come up with a plan that included building gates and putting up more lighting and fences.
They also had to get criminal background checks on employees and frequent visitors, and issue ID cards for access to restricted areas.
The plans helped Florida ports grab a disproportionate share of early federal grants for maritime security. Tampa has received $11.6-million, which includes money for the closed circuit TV system.
But construction grants don’t pay the escalating cost of additional security personnel. The port authority’s cost of security operations for the fiscal year ending last Sept. 30 was nearly $4.7-million, up 56 percent from three years earlier.
In its current budget, the agency has $106,000 for additional people to monitor the cameras. But it hasn’t spent a dime yet and won’t unless the security alert level reaches at least Marsec 2, equivalent to the federal government’s level orange for a “high risk’’ of terrorist attack, Miller said.
The cameras run 24 hours a day and everything they see is recorded on computer for review by law enforcement agencies. Officers always watch movements of high-interest vessels, such as cruise ships and tankers carrying dangerous cargo Miller said.
By STEVE HUETTEL