TWIC commences at New England ports amid hopes problems have been resolved

After a year of preparation marked by computer problems and delays in card processing, the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program went into effect Oct. 15 at port facilities across New England, with ports in the rest of the nation being phased in by April 15, 2009.

On the first day of the implementation of the TWIC program, Roger Lyden, a warehouse supervisor, presents his TWIC card at the gate of the Sprague/Merrill Marine Terminal in Portland, Maine. (John Snyder)

Mandated by Congress to improve port security, TWIC requires mariners and port personnel to acquire a tamper-resistant card to gain unescorted access to facilities regulated by the Maritime Transportation Security Act. Each card contains an applicant’s fingerprint template and photograph, along with an integrated computer chip, magnetic stripe and bar code to confirm identification.

The scale of the program, which involves issuing cards to 1.2 million workers at 149 enrollment centers, has led to deadline extensions and frustration for mariners. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the agency administering TWIC in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard, confirmed there were early glitches with fingerprint scanning, but said subsequent improvements have minimized the problem. The agency reported 480,000 enrollments as of Sept. 4.

“It’s a huge undertaking to enroll this many workers in a program this complex,€VbCrLf said TSA spokesman Greg Soule. “Our No. 1 priority is port security, but we want to work to minimize the effects on commerce as well.€VbCrLf

Under the original timetable, the deadline for TWIC compliance for mariners and facilities nationwide was Sept. 25. As problems became apparent, the TSA changed course and implemented a new schedule to phase in compliance over an extended period.

“The extension is the result of a direct collaboration with mariners and the industry, and it honors our commitment to provide an 18-month enrollment period,€VbCrLf Soule said. The first TWIC enrollment center opened in October 2007.

John Corsa, gate attendant, checks a TWIC card at the Sprague/Merrill terminal. (John Snyder)

The process of obtaining a TWIC card involves pre-registering online as recommended by the TSA, then making an appointment at an enrollment center for a fingerprint scan. Personal information and data from the scan are submitted to the TSA, which conducts a background check and issues the card. The applicant must return to the enrollment center to pick up the card and have it activated.

As the program got off the ground, many applicants discovered that the TSA’s computers could not read their fingerprints, resulting in unplanned return visits and weeks of delays in receiving their cards. The technical problems also extended the average enrollment session well beyond the 10 to 15 minutes cited on the TSA’s Web site. In response, the agency upgraded the software used by its scanners and enhanced training for center personnel, Soule said.

“Our current fingerprint rejection rate is 1 percent, which is lower than the industry standard of 4 percent,€VbCrLf he said. “The average turnaround time from enrollment to card pickup is now two weeks. It was four to six weeks initially.€VbCrLf

Michael Leone, port director for the Massachusetts Port Authority, experienced the fingerprinting problems firsthand when he applied for his TWIC card at the beginning of the year. He said improvements in the process have been obvious, with the average turnaround time of six to eight weeks now down to nine days for applicants in Boston. Education and preparation have also played key roles.

“We’ve been doing a great deal of outreach to all of the affected personnel, notifying them that they have to get their TWIC in advance,€VbCrLf he said in early September. “Up to 70 percent of the truckers who use our port facilities have (their cards). That was the area that was lagging the most.€VbCrLf

Alan Moore, port security specialist for Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, which includes Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and part of New York, said the entire port zone was ready for the Oct. 15 deadline.

“We’ve worked very hard to get everybody up to speed,€VbCrLf he said. “I’d say we’re around 90 percent (compliance) for those who were anticipated to need TWIC credentials. We had some problems early on, but they seem to have been resolved quite quickly.€VbCrLf

Moore said the Coast Guard had been working with companies in northern New England to randomly check TWIC compliance, and the results had been excellent.

“We’re finding an extremely high level of compliance,€VbCrLf he said. “Our intent was to get all of the bugs out of the system and to get the word out. Hopefully the 15th will be just another working day. This offers a small picture, but the picture looks very favorable.€VbCrLf

Coast Guard-authorized personnel, including local police, will be responsible for screening cardholders as they enter port facilities. Initially the screening will be limited to visual identity checks; electronic scanning equipment will be added as the program progresses. The Coast Guard will enforce overall TWIC compliance by conducting annual inspections and spot checks with handheld scanners.

Soule said the TSA has tested a variety of electronic card readers for installation at port facilities and plans to begin on-site evaluations this winter.

“Twenty facilities across the country will be participating in the pilot program, representing a broad range of operational environments,€VbCrLf he said. “After we do our initial (on-site) testing, we will issue a list of readers that are acceptable. Then ports will have the option to choose from the list.€VbCrLf

While port facility workers, longshoremen and truck drivers have to abide by the TWIC deadline for their specific zone, merchant mariners holding Coast Guard-issued credentials get a break of sorts: They will have until April 15 to obtain a card, regardless of their port of origin. Soule said they shouldn’t wait to apply and should come prepared.

“One of the biggest issues has been workers showing up to enroll without proper documentation,€VbCrLf he said. “If there are documentation issues, the process can take longer. We don’t want folks to wait until the last second.€VbCrLf

For more information on the TWIC program and how to obtain a card, log on to

Rich Miller

By Professional Mariner Staff