Problems obtaining TWIC cards causing frustration for many mariners

Capt. Reg White, 73, has had his mariner’s license since 1954. He didn’t expect any problems when he applied for his Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC).

He and his wife, Connie, who both live in Honolulu, went to that city’s enrollment center on Dec. 6, 2007, to begin the application process. The Honolulu center was one of the first in the country to open, on Nov. 7, 2007.

Michael Reese, an offshore consultant, has his fingerprints taken by Trusted Agent Brandon Stover while applying for a TWIC card in St. Rose, La.
Reg White has a master’s license and is vice president of product development at Paradise Cruise in Honolulu. He also still captains the cruise ships, the longest of which is 232 feet and carries 1,500 passengers. Connie is the company’s chief purser and has had a mariner’s license since 1978.

Connie White went first. Part of the TWIC process includes reading and storing mariner’s fingerprints, which constitute the card’s biometric data. That day there was a problem. The machine could not read Connie’s fingerprints.

“They tried her on three different machines,” said White.

No luck. Then they tried his. The machine could not read either of the couple’s fingerprints. “Our skin is quite smooth,” Reg White said, from years of maritime work. “They cannot issue us a TWIC card, because they can’t read our fingerprints on the machine.”

He has checked back with the TWIC center several times since then. In February, he was told the enrollment center would, by the end of April, have machines with new software that should be able to read the couple’s fingerprints. White said workers told him that since December, the computers have been unable to read other older mariner’s fingerprints.

“We find it a bit amusing,” White said in March. “We would not find it amusing after September, when we would not be able to go to work because they could not issue us a card.”

Many other mariners are not amused. They are angry and frustrated by problems getting their TWIC cards.

By Sept. 25, 2008, all those with merchant mariner credentials issued by the U.S. Coast Guard must have a TWIC card. The rules also require vessel owners and operators to start controlling access to secure areas of vessels using the TWIC cards as of Sept. 25. Shore-based facilities will be required to use the TWIC cards to control access to secure areas, although the date when TWIC readers must be used at these facilities has not yet been set.

As of January, the Department of Homeland Security estimated that 1 million workers would need TWIC cards, with 200,000 mariners included in that figure. Lockheed Martin was awarded the $70 million contract to operate the enrollment centers, according to the Coast Guard.

The TWIC process is supposed to involve two trips to one of 147 enrollment centers nationwide (89 had opened as of March 26, with the rest to be open by June). Mariners can pre-enroll online, then go to an enrollment center to present documents and have their fingerprints scanned. (See sidebar for online enrollment information.)

The data is submitted to the Transportation Security Administration, the agency running the TWIC program, which does background checks on mariners. The TSA then issues the TWIC cards and ships them to enrollment centers operated by Lockheed Martin.

Then mariners are supposed to be able to make an appointment to go back and pick up the card. When a mariner arrives to pick up a card, a computer checks the mariner’s fingerprints to verify identity. Then the applicant picks a six-digit personal identification number. The TSA claims it will take six to eight weeks to get a card, after the first visit to an enrollment center. The TSA also says the average TWIC enrollment time is 9.5 minutes. That figure only refers to the time taken to collect documents and fingerprint mariners in the first visit. It does not include wait time, according to Maurine Fanguy, the TWIC program director.

For many mariners, getting the TWIC card has been time-consuming and frustrating. Mariners say that many enrollment centers are hard to find and are understaffed. Mariners who don’t live near major ports must drive long distances to get to an enrollment center. Many mariners report that after making appointments to pick up their card, they still end up waiting for long periods in line. Some return to pick up their card to find their center’s computers are not working or that the computer can’t read their fingerprints in order to pick up the card. As a result, some mariners must make multiple trips to get their card.

The bulk of the problems seem to come from centers in the Gulf Coast region, where some mariners report it takes a day and a half to two days to get a card — that is, if all goes well. In some cases, poor staffing due to underestimates of who needs the cards has caused problems.

In Baton Rouge, La., for example, it was originally thought that 6,000 would need the card; in reality, 40,000 to 60,000 need a TWIC card, according to written testimony by Judith Marks, president of Lockheed Martin Transportation and Security Solutions, before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure at a Jan. 22 hearing. Lockheed Martin increased by five the number of enrollment stations in Baton Rouge and scheduled mobile enrollments at four additional sites, Marks wrote. The revised number for Houston is now 200,000 workers, said Fanguy.

The numbers in the Gulf Coast are higher than originally estimated because of the way employers, particularly in the petrochemical industry, are implementing TWIC, she said. Many companies are setting up one perimeter around their entire facility and thus requiring all employees to get TWIC cards.

In response, Lockheed Martin has increased the number of enrollment stations and is setting up mobile centers in the Gulf. As of April, there were about 50 mobile enrollment centers nationwide, according to Alan Bloodgood, Lockheed’s TWIC program director. If a company has over 100 employees, it can request a mobile center, and Lockheed has complied for companies with as low as 50 workers. These mobile centers can be open for 10 to 12 hours a day, to cover multiple shifts, Bloodgood said.

There have been some reports of delays because of problems with the device that digitally records the prints.

Tom Forbes, a New Orleans maritime attorney who has a 100-ton license, went to the New Orleans enrollment center in January. It took him two hours to do the first trip, because computers were down. He made an appointment to pick up the card, and still had to wait in line. A fellow worker went to pick up his TWIC card, but the computer at the center would not validate it. So he will have to go another time. “I look around at the number of people waiting and I think about the amount of lost time to the maritime industry,” Forbes said.

However, Capt. Andrew McGovern, president of the Sandy Hook Pilots Association on Staten Island, N.Y., said he has heard no complaints about people having to wait in line or make multiple trips to get a card. He did hear that people who made appointments to pick up cards were put in the general pool.

“That mariners are having to make two trips is not good,” said Elizabeth Gedney, director of the Passenger Vessel Association. “That mariners are having to make three or four or five trips is totally unacceptable. Every one of these is a mariner who is inconvenienced, and every one of these is a mariner who has to pay out more out-of-pocket expenses” to get the card, she said.

Tom Marian, general counsel for Buffalo Marine Service Inc. of Houston, Texas, said one of the company’s employees applied for a card Nov. 15, 2007 in Houston. He was told the card would be ready in 10 days. In December, Marian called the TWIC help desk and was told there was no problem with the application. Several weeks later, after a dozen tries on a perpetually busy TWIC help line, Marian was again told the card would be ready in a few weeks.

In the second week of January, Marian tried for two days of busy signals to reach the TWIC help line. He finally got through, was on hold for 40 minutes, and was told this employee’s card would be placed “on the expedited list.” Three weeks later, he was told the same thing. In February, Marian was told he should be patient and be prepared to wait six to eight weeks. “I do my best to hold my tongue and politely convey to the help desk person that (my employee) applied for his TWIC 13 weeks ago,” Marian explained.

After three months and multiple phone calls, Marian finally learned that the employee’s fingerprints did not take. He was told the employee would have to return to the center so his fingerprints could be rescanned. But he has to wait until the end of April, when new software will be installed to correct the fingerprint problem. Then, after waiting six months to get his card, this employee will still have to wait another six to eight weeks to pick it up.

“Unfortunately, this is not an isolated problem,” Marian said. Buffalo Marine has spent thousands of dollars and has diverted many staff hours to enroll employees ahead of the deadline, and still has to deal with false calls to pick up cards that are not ready, an inability to process prepayment cards, improper information on how long it takes to process cards, multiple trips to pick up cards and problems with fingerprints.

The consequences for mariners could be dire, Marian believes. “It is potentially jeopardizing their livelihood,” he said.

Fanguy said the TSA wants to hear from mariners how the program is doing. She asks all mariners to fill out a satisfaction survey provided at the centers. As of January, their surveys showed that 93 percent of all workers were satisfied or very satisfied with their TWIC experience. “When you roll out a program like this, it will be slower on the upfront side,” she said. In the coming months, the TSA expects the turnaround time for cards will come much closer to the original estimate of 10 to 30 days, Fanguy said.

Bloodgood, of Lockheed Martin, said that responses from companies and mariners are helping Lockheed make changes. These responses led to a site on the Web where mariners can see if their card is ready; led to creating appointments for workers to pick up cards; and the addition of staff at peak hours in specific centers, he said. Changes are tested in one region before being unveiled nationally. Lockheed has also increased hours and staff at specific centers where demand is high. Bloodgood said the hours at Houston were extended to 0600 to 1830. Previously the hours were from 0900 to 1700.

Fanguy said the TSA looks into incidents where appointments are not kept. “For the most part, I’m hearing that the appointment schedule is working quite well,” Fanguy said.

Lockheed reports the fingerprint rejection rate is just 2 percent, according to a summary on the TWIC program written for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

“It is not software,” Fanguy said of the fingerprint problem. “Some people have better or worse prints.” The fingerprint scans at enrollment centers are sent to the FBI for checking. If there is a low-quality print, an FBI examiner looks at the print. If the examiner determines the prints are not of sufficient quality, he or she requests a second set of prints.

In addition to the frustration and loss of work time to mariners, there is a growing concern that it will be difficult for the TSA to issue all the cards needed by Sept. 25.

According to the TSA’s March 27 update, there have been 258,197 pre-enrollments, 185,213 enrollments, 115,823 cards mailed and 43,174 cards activated.

“The infrastructure is not in place at this time to issue TWIC cards in a timely fashion to meet the Sept. 25 deadline,” said Ken Parris, vice president of the Offshore Marine Services Association in Harahan, La. “What happens when the majority of licensed and documented mariners can no longer come to work come Sept. 25? What will happen to the transportation system? That is a serious concern of ours.”

“This is a very high-stakes game of chicken being played between the government and industry,” said Parris.

Fanguy said the TSA is looking carefully at the Sept. 25 deadline. “We’re now enrolling 20,000 workers a week and that number is continuing to grow,” she said. “There is a lot more capacity left at many of our centers.”

By Professional Mariner Staff