Are your trucks a target for terrorism?

November 1, 2003 By    

Alone and in the dark, bobtail drivers and bulk transport operators cover their routes around the clock, providing service well into the wee hours. Isolated conditions and an explosive cargo carry Homeland Security risks that are aggressively being addressed by government regulators, politicians and trucking industry associations.

Propane marketers have long labored under tight regulations regarding safety issues, and now you are being asked-told-to beef up the security of your vehicles and routing practices as part of the country’s War on Terror.

“We’re over-regulated a ton, but this is one thing that had to be brought forth,” says Hal Simmons, safety coordinator and operations manager for Delta Liquid Energy of Paso Robles, Calif. Delta’s drivers carry cellular telephones, and Simmons is researching a Global Positioning Satellite system.

“GPS is just a matter of time,” Simmons says.

Such add-ons can make sound business sense, says Cliff Slisz, manager of safety for Ferrellgas.

“GPS is the wave of the future, not just for security reasons but for production reasons, too,” he explains.

It is not unreasonable to expect that eventually the propane industry will be required to institute satellite tracking or other technologies designed to keep tabs on the nation’s rolling propane supply. The outcome likely will involve real-time communications solutions that go beyond a telephone answering machine on the company owner’s nightstand. Even citizens band radios are discouraged as a means of communication among those carrying hazardous materials, as anyone can listen in and perpetrate a hijacking or similar crime.

About 7,000 propane bulk cargo tankers roll across American roadways, often attended by just one driver.
About 7,000 propane bulk cargo tankers roll across American roadways, often attended by just one driver.

“September 11 did happen; it’s a new world we’re living in,” says Slisz. “We need to be on our game all the time.”

Daily discussions are held at Delta over security precautions. Trucks are checked for tampering and the fuel lines are shut off when the vehicles are parked. The drivers are to be extra cautious near hospitals and schools, and they are instructed to call into headquarters if they are being pulled over by a police car. Criminals have been known to dress as authorities to gain access to vehicles, Simmons says.

Drama over Osama

The governmental attention toward security comes mostly in the form of unfunded mandates, under which rules are made without providing the money necessary to implement them. President George W. Bush has asked for $87 billion this year to support overseas military missions designed to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, while just $30 billion is earmarked for the domestic Department of Homeland Security.

The DHS, as it is known, is a burgeoning bureaucracy comprised of 22 agencies charged with protecting American soil from terrorist attacks. These include the U.S. Department of Transportation and its Research and Special Programs Administration, along with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Transportation Security Administration.

The TSA had set a Nov. 3 deadline for all propane and other hazardous materials drivers to be fingerprinted and undergo a background check. That unfunded requirement has been delayed indefinitely, according to trucking industry news accounts, because many of the individual state motor vehicle departments are not prepared with the necessary equipment.

“There are so many agencies taking a piece of the pie,” Simmons observes.

California’s regulatory climate is especially ponderous, he says. “They don’t even know what they are doing when they come in here to regulate.”

Disarray and confusion within the DHS worsen as regulations are promulgated from the various member agencies. One official noting privately that “anything is better than nothing” when it comes to regulating the tank truck industry over Homeland Security concerns.

“There is a learning curve on any new rule making,” admits Joe Delcambre, an RSPA spokesman. As of Sept. 25, every propane hauler, including marketers with bobtails, was to have a written transportation security plan in place. Most of the industry appears to be in compliance. But come January, RSPA will toughen enforcement, and Delcambre warns that punitive actions will ensue if a company’s plan is not available for review.

Amid this regulatory turmoil, the propane industry is trying to maintain a balance between safeguarding bobtails and transports while fighting the costs that come with each security upgrade.

The National Propane Gas Association objects to specific procedures or technologies being mandated by the government. Those decisions would be better left to individual propane companies, according to Phil Squair, vice president to regulatory and technical services for the association.

He says NPGA already has been instrumental in quashing various security proposals, including one proposal – daily tracking of every propane shipment – that would have cost the industry $300 million.

“That was the 800-pound gorilla that the industry changed. It would have changed the way the industry markets propane,” Squair maintains.

The association was able to convince regulators that the randomness of propane deliveries provides security benefits by eluding crimes ranging from hijackings to vandalism. “It drives home the message that marketers have a responsibility to make sure their trucks are safe and secure – whether it’s from a teen-ager or Osama bin Laden,” Squair explains.

Rolling bombs

Representatives of the propane and hazardous materials trucking industries continually call for “reasonable” and “responsible” regulations and reject a one-size-fits-all approach to hazmat security. “The propane sector has been outstanding,” notes Cliff Harvison, president of the National Tank Truck Carriers.

Concerns for over-the-road security include trucks that deliver 20-pound cylinders to retail exchange operations and service industrial forklift accounts.
Concerns for over-the-road security include trucks that deliver 20-pound cylinders to retail exchange operations and service industrial forklift accounts.

But while propane dealers tend to view their cargo as a valuable commodity with a tight profit margin, those on the regulatory front consider bobtails to be rolling bombs that must be kept out of enemy hands at virtually all costs.

The National Safety Council cites propane as a frightfully common and widespread security risk, along with chlorine and ammonia. An NSC tip sheet issued to the nation’s news media contends “all of these are only lightly protected and vulnerable to terrorists with basic knowledge and primitive weapons.”

Generally speaking, government regulators seem to view all mobile hazmat as equal threats with little regard to the special challenges faced by propane marketers striving to run a profitable business.

“These materials are certainly likely to come under (increased) regulation, especially when officials making the decisions are not aware of the ramifications,” says Roger Kallock, a former U.S. undersecretary of defense who now runs Chagrin Consulting Associates, a supply chain logistics and security firm based in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. The company specializes in applying military technology to civilian applications.

Kallock cautions the propane industry not to get so caught up in fighting security expenses that it loses track of the critical mission at hand – protecting the nation’s propane supply from those with evil intent. He suggests that the industry voluntarily phase-in certain security precautions in a cooperative manner.

An industry approach that focuses on obtaining security on the cheap by defeating or reducing government security proposals can be fraught with dire consequences should a fiery terrorist event unfold.

“I would guess that this organization (the NPGA) is going to have a run for its money,” says Kallock, referring to the sharp media and governmental attention that could come with a terror attack. “You have to do it in a spirit of cooperation – phase it in rather than fighting it.”

“We’re not talking about an unknown issue here. People recognize propane as volatile and highly susceptible to terrorism. If the public knew the potential of bad things that could happen with a propane truck there would be a lot more attention paid,” Kallock points out.

“If someone stole a propane truck they could run it into a school. If you had multiple events in a concentrated area you could severely disrupt this society. What would happen if a couple of guys hijacked some propane trucks and ran them into buildings?”

Unquestionably, a flurry of tougher regulations aimed directly at the propane industry would be first on the list.

“Knowing some of these congressmen and senators, this will happen in a heartbeat. This country is great at solving yesterday’s problems,” Kallock says, citing the 9/11 airliner attacks and a passenger’s failed attempted to light an explosive fuse on his sneakers. “We now spend a lot of time making little old ladies take their shoes off at airports.”

A national transportation security expert, speaking under conditions of anonymity, believes that a future terrorist event will most likely cause mass disruption rather than mass destruction. He was in New York City on 9/11.

“I saw the planes hit. I saw people jumping out of buildings,” he recalls.

Although he doubts anything could top the carnage that he witnessed at the Twin Towers, he says an incident of simultaneous propane blasts “could wreak ‘political panic’ and a level of regulation that would cripple the industry.”

The current rule-making process by the DHS and its member agencies is incredibly exasperating, according to the security expert.

“Nobody knows what to do,” he complains. “You can never get a straight answer from anyone in the government. It seems like it’s just an exercise to make people think about this in some sort of organized fashion.”

Out of touch

The logistics of security regulation are indeed daunting as DHS struggles to cope with the potential for truck-driven terror. Some 800,000 loads of hazardous cargo traverse the nation’s roads each day. Gasoline tankers make about 50,000 daily runs, some containing as much fuel as a Boeing 757 airliner.

According to the NPGA, about 7,000 propane bulk cargo tankers cross the countryside with capacities ranging from 9,000 to 17,000 gallons. There are 28,000 bobtails with volumes ranging from 750 to 6,500 gallons. Other trucks deliver 20-pound cylinders to retail exchange operations and service industrial forklift accounts.

Many of these vehicles are rolling “blind,” with the driver having no method of quickly summoning help if something goes awry. Even a major multi-state propane retailer concedes that not all the company’s trucks are equipped to maintain contact with the office.

“I’m flabbergasted with the lack of communication among the hazmat community,” says Kallock.

“We are way under-invested in communications equipment in the public sector,” he adds, pointing to the military’s use of radio frequency identification (RFID) and satellite technology to keep track of key assets. Even golf carts have GPS equipment on board to measure the distance to the cup, he notes.

“Local propane drivers have to have confidence that they can get action quickly” if a problem is discovered, Kallock says.

War games

Security experts say propane marketers should be getting together locally with their suppliers, high-use customers and emergency authorities to plan how to react to either a terrorist attack or natural disaster. Kallock calls this concept “failing smartly.” It means that there is redundancy, flexibility and resiliency in the plans should trouble arise.

Propane dealers are myopic if they believe that their role merely begins at the terminal and ends in the customer’s yard, Kallock maintains.

“You’re trying to secure the entire supply chain. You need to play war games. Ask yourself, ‘What’s the worst that can happen and what can I do about it?'”

There are more than 3 million licensed truck drivers in the United States.

Nationwide, there are 1,100 private truck stops in addition to public rest areas.

Some 800,000 loads of hazardous cargo traverse the nation’s roads each day.

According to the NPGA, there are about 7,000 propane bulk cargo tankers in the country with capacities ranging from 9,000 gallons to 17,000 gallons.

There are some 28,000 bobtails with capacities ranging from 750 gallons to 6,500 gallons of propane.

Additionally, trucks deliver 20-pound cylinders to retail exchange operations and service industrial forklift accounts.

Gasoline tankers make about 50,000 daily runs, some containing as much fuel as a Boeing 757 airliner.

Truck and cargo theft results in more than $10 billion in annual losses nationally.

In a recent accident involving a gas tanker in Detroit, the driver was killed and four key bridge girders were melted. Two interstate highway ramps that carry 150,000 drivers each day will be closed throughout the winter for repairs.

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