Previously in my career, I sailed (worked) on passenger and car ferries, container ships, tugs, and barges. Every time I would get up for my watch (shift) I would get my coffee and make my way up to the wheel house/pilot house/ bridge of the vessel to start work. At the door of every bridge I went on there was a sign "Restricted Area, unauthorized presence constitutes a breach of security".
The first time I went on the bridge of a ship (when I was at a Maritime Training Academy), seeing that sign made me incredibly uncomfortable. "Am I allowed here?" "Who gives me authorization to be here?" "What does breach of security mean?" I quickly learned that when you're crew on a vessel, you have permission to be on the bridge (though I never worked on a cruise ship, I imagine large passenger vessels are much different). When in port though, the need for security and integrity of the bridge changes significantly.
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Port operations change your security operating plan
I know every vessel has their own vessel security plan (VSP) and there are stipulations and requirements for security when the vessel is at sea as well as when it's in port. However, security is relatively relaxed at sea. Why? You know everyone on board.
In the United States, to work on a US flagged vessel (a ship that calls the United States home) crew members are required to have TWIC cards to get the credentials they need from the Coast Guard to work. Because everyone onboard has been vetted and passed security screening, there is very little need to restrict access on the vessel when it is at sea.
However, that all changes when you are in port unloading and/or loading cargo. During the course of cargo operations in port, there may be as many as 20 different groups that require access to the vessel, each with their own different level of security. For example, a longshore or stevedore that is loading cargo doesn't need access into the vessel at all, where a port engineer or electrician may need access into the depths of the vessel, engine room, bridge. Because there are so many people that need access into different areas of the vessel, the crew typically locks the restricted area in port and escorts the vendors and people needing access in to those specific areas.
Why is the bridge (and engine room) so important
The bridge is the brain of the vessel and the engine room is the heart. Without either one of the areas, the vessel just wouldn't be able to sail. Bridge security (and engine room) and integrity is extremely important to maintain because the controls for the entire vessel go through there.
From a data security and vessel integrity stand point, there are numerous sensitive pieces of equipment on the vessel that have the ability to control life safety systems and navigation systems. Keeping these secure is a top priority of vessel operators. Many of these items have some sport of tamper seal to ensure integrity and deter unauthorized access. Some of the items that operate through here are:
- Voyage Data Recorder (VDR)
- Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS)
- General Alarm
- GMDSS Suite (Radios)
- Bridge Watch Alarm Systems
- Satellite Communication Hub
- GPS Systems
- CO2 or Halon Extinguishing Control Systems
- Fire door release panels
- Propulsion and steering controls
- Gyro compass systems
- Navigation Lights Controls
- And more
When is locking the door not enough?
Locking the door to the bridge isn't always enough to deter access to the bridge and engine room. When the MARSEC level is elevated or there are other activities on board that are out of the usual operation (guests who are onboard without TWIC cards, etc.) , locking the door isn't always the ideal way to deter access to the bridge or engine room.
Some methods of preventing access in heightened times of security include chaining the doors shut (if practical), hiring security guards to monitor access to these areas, or even restricting access to the vessels entirely. If the MARSEC level is elevated, some vessel security officers may even decide to prohibit access to the vessel altogether.
Overall, the security of the vessel and integrity of its critical spaces are extremely important to maintain both at sea and in port.