Safe Seas: Protecting America’s Ferries against Criminal Mass-Casualty Incidents

Steven Blindbury


America has entered the era of the active-shooter phenomenon, and empirical evidence supports a rising national trend that creates a risk for all mass-gathering public venues. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) defines an active shooter as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area; in most cases, active shooters use firearms and there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims.”[1] The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports that active shooters are likely to target public sites where a large number of people are gathered in a crowded space with limited security measures such as transportation centers.[2] The United States has a robust ferry transportation system, composed of over 500 vessels, which transport more than 115 million passengers and 30 million vehicles annually.[3] There are no controls to regulate the transport of firearms on ferries, yet armed law enforcement personnel on ferries cover only a small percentage of trips. This lack of coverage represents a potentially exploitable vulnerability, as a passenger could easily bring a firearm onto a vessel and initiate an active-shooter event.

An attack on a ferry would result in a significant number of casualties and create a considerable disruption in services to the nation’s transportation system.[4] The United States would have to allocate considerable resources to enhance national security to restore public confidence and mitigate the potential for additional incidents.[5] In the age of the active-shooter phenomenon, where daily attacks occur in mass-population gatherings, the intelligence community has assessed that soft targets and crowded places, such as ferry systems, will remain attractive targets of various threat actors and vulnerable to
mass-casualty attacks into the foreseeable future.[6] Despite collaborative efforts by the United States Coast Guard (USCG), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and law enforcement, ferry companies have been unable to devise a feasible solution to the active-shooter scenario that would not result in a substantial number of casualties.[7] Maintaining the status quo offers inconsistent security protection for a vital maritime transportation system.

Examining public transportation systems in the United States, this thesis identifies security methodologies used in the aviation, rail, and maritime domains that might realistically be applied to ferry security to mitigate an active-shooter event. The essential theme and common denominator among the security alternatives is the focus on transitioning traditional law enforcement and military security roles to the civilian ferry workforce. These initiatives could exponentially bolster and increase the security posture of the U.S. ferry systems by tapping into a previously unrecognized resource—the vast maritime civilian workforce—as a readily available security asset.

The TSA’s Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) Program empowers and arms aircrew members with limited police powers to augment law enforcement’s role in preventing hijackings.[8] While ferry companies have actively pursued a process for arming their captains and employees through current legal means, they have faced numerous jurisdictional and regulatory challenges, which have proved prohibitive. A viable alternative to counteracting potential active-shooter situations would be to authorize civilian ferry personnel to become deputized as voluntary unpaid federal agents and enable them to carry a firearm and use deadly force to address an immediate threat to the safety and security of their vessels. This initiative would utilize the FFDO Program as a conceptual, developmental model for the creation of an equivalent position for ferries.

DHS has concluded that an “informed and empowered public is the greatest ally to enhance the security of soft targets and crowded places.”[9] According to DHS’s Soft Targets and Crowded Places Security Plan Overview, individuals working in these locations are often in the best position to help detect and prevent possible attacks.[10] To truly be effective, these employees must have a basic knowledge and understanding of how to identify baseline behaviors for their environment as well as the ability to recognize characteristics and anomalies that might indicate nefarious intent. These employees would serve as the first line of defense in mitigating potential mass-casualty incidents by identifying individuals in the stages of preparing for an attack. Active shooters often display observable behaviors and physical manifestations of their intent. In an interview with the Washington Post, Supervisory Special Agent Andre Simons of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit reported that active shooters spend a week or longer planning the attack.[11] In protecting aviation transportation, the TSA established behavioral recognition training for its civilian workforce to identify indicators that warrant law enforcement engagement. For law enforcement, the TSA provides the Behavioral Detection and Analysis Program, which covers behavioral training, verbal engagements, and resolution conversations.[12] Empowering the civilian workforce with the ability to recognize baseline behaviors in suspicious individuals and to facilitate a police referral could mitigate an active-shooter event by ensuring that persons with nefarious intentions are not given the opportunity to board a vessel until they are cleared by law enforcement. The entire U.S. ferry system would be well served if the USCG and TSA collaborated on a maritime-specific behavioral recognition training program for the civilian workforce that could be incorporated into each port’s maritime security plan.

Additionally, the TSA and CBP have processes that identify persons who might pose a threat to transportation, enabling appropriate action to be taken before the passengers access a conveyance.[13] National watch centers have the ability to conduct a check of a passenger’s name—almost instantaneously—for a nexus to terrorism or to ascertain whether the individual might present a threat to the public. Ferry operators have no requirements to establish passenger manifest records or conduct checks on the names of persons who will be traveling on their vessels. Under heightened maritime alerts, USCG guidance permits ferry operators to implement indigenous security procedures that do not facilitate scheduling delays or impact the service they provide to the public. This includes, but is not necessarily limited to, examining the identification of vessel passengers. The support structure is already available to conduct a name check on suspicious passengers. It would be operationally prudent from a security perspective to enable ferry owners and operators to have a designated process for reporting suspicious passengers and conducting an assessment. Devising and incorporating a process that enables ferry personnel to conduct a name check on a suspicious passenger through a dedicated watch center would be a proactive maritime security measure that is consistent with those found in other U.S. public transportation domains.

Maritime security strategies have actively engaged in preventing terrorist operatives and persons with nefarious intentions from introducing improvised nuclear explosive devices or radiological disposal devices into America’s public transportation systems. These screening activities have been conducted primarily by the U.S. military and law enforcement on infrequent and random operations. Providing the civilian maritime workforce with personal radiation detection devices would exponentially increase the ability of the U.S. ferry system to intercept and prevent radiological materials before they could be brought onto a vessel, essentially shielding the entire transportation network from this attack matrix.

Many government studies have pointed to the security vulnerabilities on ferries, but the sources focus narrowly on limited response strategies. The proactive security approach taken by this thesis provides a framework that can be applied to the U.S. ferry system in a clear and cohesive manner, which would harden it against an active-shooter event. Developing and implementing proactive security measures that protect people and safeguard infrastructure assets is a matter of good business and shared corporate responsibility.[14] DHS supports a strategic security model that encourages a shared responsibility among agencies with security responsibilities, private entities, and operators that provide public transportation services.[15] The USCG supports the Area Maritime Security Committee (AMSC) in each sector. AMSCs are collaborative teams composed of federal, state, and local emergency response agencies that partner with stakeholders and maritime industry leaders to provide guidance and direction on the security of ports. These unique groups would have the ability to provide oversight and assistance in transitioning certain security responsibilities from law enforcement to civilians. The recommendations in this thesis build on DHS’s commitment and demonstrate that a shared responsivity is the best approach toward securing the U.S. ferry system against a mass-casualty attack. They do not rely on new technologies that are untested and untried. This thesis engaged a business model approach toward safeguarding America’s ferries by building on the programs and proven strategies that are already in use in other transportation domains, with an emphasis on transitioning traditional law enforcement roles to a civilian workforce. The support structure necessary to implement these recommendations has already been developed, requiring only legislative and procedural changes to adapt these systems for maritime applicability. In this regard, these recommendations are not necessarily unique or visionary, but they are proven, cost-effective, and easily implementable.

As daily shootings in public places become accepted as the norm in America, maintaining the status quo in ferry security is to accept the inevitable—that an active shooter will eventually recognize the vulnerabilities and exploit them to initiate an attack on a vessel. A proactive approach that employs simple measures and actively engages the civilian workforce will not only harden ferries against active shooters but also augment the current U.S. maritime security posture and diminish the potential for a mass-casualty attack.



[1] Department of Homeland Security, Active Shooter: How to Respond (Washington, DC: DHS, October 2008), 3,

[2] “Community Outreach,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, accessed October 11, 2018, https://www.

[3] “National Census of Ferry Operators (NCFO),” Bureau of Transportation Statistics, last modified October 30, 2018,

[4] Stephen L. Caldwell, Dawn Hoff, and Jonathan Bachman, Maritime Security: Ferry Security Measures Have Been Implemented, but Evaluating Existing Studies Could Further Enhance Security, GAO-11-207 (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, December 2010),

[5] Caldwell, Hoff, and Bachman.

[6] Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Soft Targets and Crowded Places Security Plan Overview (Washington, DC: DHS, May 2018),

[7] Scott Graham and Al Hoffman (USCG port security specialists for the Long Island Sound Sector), personal communication, July 17, 2017.

[8] Federal Flight Deck Officer Program, 49 C.F.R. § 44921 (2006).

[9] Department of Homeland Security, Soft Targets and Crowded Places, 1.

[10] Department of Homeland Security, 2

[11] Mark Berman, “Active Shooters Usually Get Their Guns Legally and Then Target Specific Victims, FBI Says,” Washington Post, June 20, 2018,

[12] Tayla Balkovic (Threat Assessment Division, Transportation Security Administration), personal communication, October 12, 2017.

[13] Stephen L. Caldwell, Dawn Hoff, and Jonathan Bachman, Maritime Security: Varied Actions Taken to Enhance Cruise Ship Security, but Some Concerns Remain, GAO-10-400 (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, April 2010), htpp://

[14] Department of Homeland Security, Soft Targets and Crowded Places, 3.

[15] Department of Homeland Security, 2.

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