Ed Merkle leads technology success story at Virginia Port Authority

Sep 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Carol Carey

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In most instances, security directors wishing to install sophisticated access control or surveillance systems at their workplaces must be sensitive to both employees' and customers' reactions. Public relations considerations may determine where and how surveillance cameras are placed, for instance. Concerns about maintaining good customer and employee relations often lead to the purchase of systems that are user-friendly.

At the Virginia Port Authority (VPA) in Norfolk, Director of Port Security and Emergency Operations Norris E. (Ed) Merkle has had occasion to take such concerns to the “next level,” integrating his security program with the unique business and operational issues faced by one of America's busiest and most successful ports.

“We're one of the first U.S. maritime ports to have fully electronic automated gates, remotely monitored, at our ports,” says Merkle, referring to his administration of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Access Control Gates (Gates) grant for $2.1 million, which the VPA received in 2005.

He notes that the gate systems are fully operational at two of the three maritime ports, the Portsmouth Marine Terminal (PMT) and the Newport News Marine Terminal. An electronic gate system is being planned for the third and largest marine terminal, the Norfolk International Terminal (NIT).

Merkle believes the VPA is unique in having terminals that are completely, rather than partially, covered by electronic gate systems.

A major concern in implementing the technology was to allow for maximum traffic flow through the gates while maintaining the highest levels of security and safety, Merkle says. “It was important to incorporate security measures without impeding the flow of materials through the gate,” he notes.

The Portsmouth Terminal, for instance, has seven automated tollbooth-like lanes, managed by two individuals at a remote location. There are four lanes, all automated, at the Newport News Marine Terminal. The lanes include integrated access control and camera surveillance points and are run by software designed by L.A. King, a California marine terminal gate integrator.

“All the cameras record the entire transaction once the person uses his or her prox card,” Merkle says. “Pedestrians, cars and trucks go through the gates.”

HID proximity cards are used with Lenel-based card readers. Both network and digital video recorders are used for the camera system. ID cards are issued to some 18,000 individuals who need to access the terminals, including employees, drivers, railroad personnel, vendors and contractors.

The VPA owns four general cargo terminals — three marine and one inland. An affiliate, Virginia International Terminals Inc. (VIT), operates the terminals. The VPA and related maritime industry are responsible for 343,000 jobs and $41 billion in total revenues throughout the state. The 1,200-acre port is among the largest such facilities on the U.S. East Coast, with an infrastructure that includes six direct trains to 28 major cities daily, and more than 50 motor-carrier companies offering freight handling.

Managing a staff of approximately 101 people, 89 of them sworn police officers, within the port environment requires the ability to incorporate the goals of top management with specific departmental goals. David Stevenson, security integrator with Zel Technologies, admires Merkle's ability to juggle security, business and management issues with equal aplomb. In addition to the police officers, Merkle's staff includes about nine administrative and support personnel, including dispatchers, I.D. clerks and administrative support staff.

In the process of implementing the gates project, for instance, Merkle regularly met with both VPA senior management staff and his own department's senior management. His sense of teamwork, no doubt honed by years in the U.S. Coast Guard, enabled him to forge solutions that would take into account both his police officers' preference for hands-on contact with people passing through VPA gates, and the technological managers' strong faith in the automated systems.

“We could have let the entry be 100 percent automatic. An IT professional might look at a 100 percent automatic solution,” Merkle says. “On the other hand, the police officers value the human interaction and the instincts that tell them if something is amiss.”

Ultimately, a compromise was reached in which, “Technology gives the green light, but the officer chooses whether to clear the driver and open the gate. The officers, speaking remotely through our voice communication system, will greet the driver or pedestrian, and ask questions such as whether they have any other occupants in the vehicle,” Merkle says.

Perhaps no single facet of the VPA operation better illustrates the teamwork skills of top managers like Merkle than its recent achievement of the ISO 9001:2000 certification, the internationally recognized quality management designation. The VPA is the first port owner and operator on the East Coast to achieve the certification, and only the second in the nation, according to Merkle and the VPA.

“We're only the second port to be ISO compliant - Oakland is the first,” Merkle says. “To achieve this, you've got to have very detailed document control, for instance, relating to e-mails and investigations.”

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