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Unitech’s Charleston office wins largest federal pact for maritime security training

Jan. 1, 2005
Charleston Post and Courier
By Kris Wise
In an unmarked, hard-to-find office above one of the busiest streets downtown, a crew of former Coast Guard officers and maritime experts is working to make Charleston the epicenter of efforts to thwart terrorism at the nation's ports.

Unitech, a branch office of a larger Virginia-based company, just secured the largest federal contract for anti-terrorism and crisis training at 24 major ports across the country.

The $7 million score is a big step up from where the company was just two years ago, when retired Coast Guard commander Fred White was running the operation out of the trunk of his car.

The company, led by White and former Port of Charleston Captain Gary Merrick, will spend the next two years teaching people in port communities as far-flung as New York and Los Angeles what warnings to look for and what threats to take seriously when it comes to danger on the coast and at sea.

They'll conduct seminars, map out response plans for police, port officials and medics, and lead the realistic drills that pit port officials against enemies both human and mechanical, from boatloads of terrorists to smuggled chemical weapons and dirty bombs.

The company beat out more than 80 other companies in securing the contract, a project spearheaded by the national Transportation Security Administration.

"Some of the larger companies have deeper pockets, but they're not as nimble or responsive as we are," White said of his competition in the industry. "And we're hungrier than they are."

The six-man team at Unitech acknowledges it was a perfect storm of events that led them to the second phase of their careers just a couple of years ago.

Most were thinking of retiring from the Coast Guard or their related maritime fields when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred. It threw them a curveball and got them all thinking about how port communities could possibly deal with a bevy of expensive new homeland security requirements.

"The understanding of what was coming into the port, what was in those containers and who was coming and going. ... There was an element of that before Sept. 11, but it was focused on things from the safety standpoint," said Merrick, who was captain of Charleston's port when the terrorist attacks occurred. "Security adds another element to that. There's been significant improvement, but there's still a ways to go."

White was, at the time, in charge of the Coast Guard's port training program at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He wasn't thinking then of ways terrorists could harm the nation's waterways. He and colleagues were focused mostly on keeping shipments of narcotics out of the country and using nonlethal weapons -- technology that seems to come straight out of an action flick -- to stop criminals in foreign waters.

White soon took on the task of preparing the Port of Charleston, and the entire city, for an attack. In the spring of 2002, White and Merrick led the nation's largest crisis drill since Sept. 11. More than 1,000 people in South Carolina, including police officers, firefighters, doctors and dockworkers, participated.

Many of them might be looking back on the simulation now as an eerie kind of preparation. That's because it included a simulation of a chlorine-loaded train wreck, much like the one that killed nine people in Graniteville earlier this month.

The success of the drill led White to market what he and his colleagues knew about protecting the country's coast. He approached Unitech, a Centerville, Va.-based training and logistics company, about starting up a Charleston office focused solely on anti-terrorism training in the maritime community.

It wasn't just that there was money to be made in the field. White said he saw major gaps in security measures that needed to be fixed.

Working solo out of his car or wherever he could find a table -- "I got kicked out of Starbucks," he joked -- White began making contacts, lining up consulting work and persuading his former co-workers to come on board.

One of them, David Morton, a former Merchant Marine who also worked on tugboats in Charleston Harbor, said he recognized the team at Unitech as being the most dedicated to teaching the public why port security is so important, and why it has so often been overlooked.

"By and large, people just don't think about the maritime industry and the possibility for the interruption of their lives, of their businesses and the economic impact it has," said Morton.

He cited the effect a hangup at a port has on a variety of things, including the stock market and what's on the shelves of most grocery stores.

In addition to helping the State Ports Authority and other local maritime-related businesses try to prevent those hangups, the six-man staff at Unitech also consults with the state of South Carolina on its homeland security response plans.

The company won a contract last year to lead 22 crisis drills across the state during a 22-month period.

The company also has become a consultant for Project Seahawk, the multimillion-dollar Charleston-based control center for port security nationwide. There, advisers from at least 50 military and intelligence agencies exchange security information and work to keep ports updated on potential threats.

Even now, enjoying the rush of responsibility to secure 24 of the 40 major U.S. ports, Unitech's Charleston campus said it has plenty of goals left to accomplish. The company will double its staff to 12 in the next year and is lobbying for work abroad, bidding on contracts to help the former Soviet Union keep track of leftover nuclear materials that are ripe for smuggling. The company also is looking to strengthen its ties to SPAWAR, the Naval weapons engineering program in Hanahan.
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