Crime & Justice

LA Sheriff's get high-tech screening vessel, helicopter for port security

Tug boats work the waters in the Port of Los Angeles June 13, 2007 in San Pedro, California. File photo.
Tug boats work the waters in the Port of Los Angeles June 13, 2007 in San Pedro, California. File photo.
David McNew/Getty Images

Sheriff's officials announced today the addition of a ship for screening cargo vessels and a radiation-detecting helicopter aimed at hardening the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex against terrorists.

The 55-foot screening vessel is "the first of its kind in the world,'' according to a department statement. The vessel and helicopter join a badge-carrying dog, Johnny Ringo, that can sniff out chemical and biological weapons.

The boat, valued around $3 million, and the radiation detection pod for the helicopter, valued at about $220,000, was paid for the Department of Homeland Security, sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said. The Sheriff's Department already owned the Eurostar helicopter the pod is mounted on, he said.

The dog, an 18-month-old black Golden Retriever named Johnny Ringo, has one of most highly trained noses ever, he said, adding that he can sniff out chemical agents at lower concentrations than any instrument. .

Whitmore said the boat is designed to scan the contents of a ship through its hull as it is being escorted into the port and transmit the data to shore-based authorities. It is equipped with a submersible rover that can search hulls for explosives in zero-visibility conditions, he said.

Boarding teams led by the U.S. Coast Guard will include explosives experts using portable detection equipment, members of the sheriff's SWAT team, and explosive-detecting dogs, Ewell said.

The search teams will inspect ships for conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, including "radiological and chemical/biological devices and their precursors,'' Ewell said.

"The port complex is one of the most critical infrastructures in the United States,'' said Jack Ewell, who is in charge of the project for the Sheriff's Department.

"It is the largest and the busiest container port in the U.S., with 40 percent of all U.S. imports coming through the port complex. It is estimated that it would cost the U.S. economy $1 billion a day if the port complex was shut down by an incident,'' he said.

"Once the ships have been inspected, they are cleared to enter the port complex, where additional security measures are in place by port security officials,'' he said, adding that the program was launched yesterday.

The screening vessel acquired by the Sheriff's Department carries "the most advanced technology currently available to protect the region,'' Ewell said.

"It is equipped with highly advanced radiation and chemical/biological detection equipment, which allows deputies to remotely screen entire ships for weapons of mass destruction materials while they are under way to the port complex,'' he said.

The equipment can transmit data in real time to the Sheriff's Department's hazardous-materials detail headquarters for further interpretation, Ewell said.

The vessel is also equipped with an advanced sonar system, along with a rover capable of depths of up to 3,000 feet.