RSPA administrator points out new security role for agency

The Department of Transportation's Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) has long focused on safety and preventing hazardous materials accidents, but today the agency has a new mission--offsetting the possibility of a deliberate incident caused by terrorists.

"RSPA has changed a lot because of 9/11," said Ellen Engleman, RSPA's new administrator. "We have a whole new world for hazardous materials."

Engleman discussed the agency's new role as a result of the September 11 terrorists attacks on New York City and Washington DC at the Hazardous Materials Advisory Council annual conference and exhibition November 7-9 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The agency's enforcement authority will be used aggressively, but RSPA needs industry as a partner in order to be successful in protecting the United States against the threat of terrorism. RSPA is soliciting suggestions from industry for ways both can better perform their jobs under the new circumstances, she said.

RSPA announced November 8 that it has extended to November 21 the deadline for submitting papers on technical or project activities that would improve the security or reduce the vulnerability of transportation services to accidental or intentional disruption. Recognizing the need to develop innovative technologies and operational concepts that address transportation security, RSPA issued Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) No. DTRS56-01-BAA-0002 on September 25 in response to the tragic transportation related incidents.

A two-phase proposal submission process is currently underway. During the first phase, interested parties are requested to submit white papers which describe their ideas. RSPA will subsequently convene an evaluation panel to review all submitted descriptions. In the second phase, submitters of the most innovative ideas will be requested to provide more detailed descriptions to have their submissions formally evaluated. These full proposals in the second phase may form the basis for a subsequent contract.

To obtain additional information concerning the BAA, interested parties can visit: RSPA.

Securing hazardous materials will require efforts such as improving product seals, using electronic tracking devices on shipments, and employing other technological tools. The agency is seeking high-tech, low-cost solutions, Engleman said at the conference. "We can't rely on just a single system," she pointed out.

Another change lies in the public sector. In the past, hazardous materials manufacturing and distribution were open to public scrutiny. Government web sites containing detailed information on chemical plants and refineries have been removed from the Internet or significantly altered. The federal government is shifting to a "need to know" policy.

However, there is a dilemma inherent in that action. For example, while it might seem wise to remove placards from cargo so that the shipments are not obvious, the placards' absence would present a problem for emergency responders in the event of an accident, she added.

Despite the recent events that have put the United States on terrorism alert, there have been positive reactions within the Department of Transportation. Engleman said that the agencies are working together and sharing information as never before. She urged companies involved in the industry to contact RSPA if they cannot get through to other agencies for transportation information. RSPA personnel will attempt to answer questions or find the information that is required.

"Safety has no jurisdiction," she said.

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