When applying for your TWIC, consider bringing cookies

Aug 15, 2008 12:00 AM

When I read 46 CFR 10.113, “Failure to obtain or hold a valid TWIC may serve as a basis for suspension or revocation of a mariner’s license or STCW endorsement,” I immediately decided to apply for my Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card. I realized that, with over 1 million maritime workers here in the U.S. needing to apply for their TWIC, I had better get going. In late February I began the process of obtaining my card.

A friend of mine who is a chief mate on a tug had already applied. He told me that I should definitely make an appointment, and could do it by computer or phone. I called 866-DHS-TWIC. After waiting on hold for almost two hours a rep from Lockheed Martin, the private contractor hired by the Department of Homeland Security to handle the TWIC program, came on the line. She said, “Your friend is right, you should make an appointment. If you don’t have an appointment and decide to just drop into your local TWIC Enrollment Center, everybody there who does have an appointment will be allowed to go ahead of you. You could wait all day and never get enrolled.” That was good enough for me. I asked, “Can I make an appointment now?” “No,” she replied, “You have to pre-enroll first.”

She asked for my name, address, phone number, Social Security number, place and date of birth, height, weight, eye color and hair color. She continued, and after taking more than 10 minutes to get my personal info, she finally said I was now pre-enrolled. I then set up my in-person appointment at the Seattle Enrollment Site for late February. As I hung up I looked at my watch. The call had lasted nearly two-and-a-half hours.

The day of my appointment I made the two-and-a-half hour drive from my home to the industrial area of south Seattle, where the Enrollment Site was located. It turned out to be in a room at the local Fraternal Order of Eagles lodge. I walked through the double door and a Lockheed Martin rep was sitting at a small table with a clipboard. She asked, “Do you have an appointment?” I said yes. Then she asked for my pre-enrollment computer printout. “I don’t have one,” I replied. She scowled and said curtly that without a computer printout I had no proof of pre-enrollment. I’d either have to leave, or wait around and see if they could squeeze me in sometime before the office closed. Trying not to show my irritation, I told her that I made an appointment by phone, and didn’t get any computer printout. After an awkward moment or two, she let me in.

The room was divided up into cubicles by sets of curtains. There were two long rows of hard plastic chairs, and seven or eight men and women waiting. That morning there were two ship engineers, some computer techs for a stevedoring company, a longshore worker, an apprentice from a local maritime training center, and a quiet guy in the corner of the last row. Ten minutes after I arrived the lady at the front desk went up to the quiet guy and said in a loud voice, “Since you don’t have an appointment and everyone else here does, you’ll have to wait until they’re done. We can’t get you in before lunch, and after lunch we’re booked with appointments, too. You can stay and take your chances, or make an appointment and come back.” Dejectedly, he left.

After waiting 45 minutes I was finally called into one of the curtained cubicles. The Lockheed Martin rep asked me for my pre-enrollment computer printout. I told her I pre-enrolled by phone. She looked up my name on the database. “You’re not in the system, so whatever they did for your pre-enrollment by phone it isn’t recorded. We’ll have to start all over again.” As she asked me the same questions I had answered on the phone a few days earlier, it made me think that my long pre-enrollment phone call had been a waste. After getting my info she scanned my passport, then took fingerprints and thumbprints of both hands on a large fingerprinting machine.

I thought that we were done, but the rep told me she needed another fingerprint — of just one finger — “for verification purposes.” I didn’t quite understand why, but complied nevertheless. The computer told me which finger to put on the small scanner. Nothing. Again and again we tried. After seventeen failed attempts scanning my left index finger, it was time for lunch and she was giving up. “You’ll have to come back again, the scanner isn’t working.” Thinking of having to do another day of five hours driving, two ferry rides, and the whole pre-enrollment thing again, I asked, “Can I see the manager?”

He came by, heard what was going on, and said, “Let’s try a different small scanner.” I waited another 10 minutes while he unplugged the scanner I’d been using and replaced it. When ready, he scanned my left index finger. Nothing. We tried the right index finger 10 times — nothing again! The manager told me “You may be one of the 3 percent of TWIC card applicants we’re finding have worn their fingerprints down from years of rough working with their hands.” When I heard that I thought, “That’s over 30,000 people!” He continued, “We can’t get a good scan on their fingers, and won’t be able to until we get new software to correct that problem.” I asked, “When will that be?” He answered, “Hopefully in May.”

Then he said, “I’m sorry, but it’s my lunchtime. We’ve tried two scanners and still don’t have a good enough fingerprint. You’ll have to reschedule and come back in two months — if the new software is ready.” I thought, “This has shot my whole day. I do not need to give up another day, plus five hours driving and two ferry rides to get scanned again.” In a last ditch effort to get enrolled I said, “Let’s try one more time. If the scanner works I’ll go out to my truck and get the chocolate/coconut cookies my wife packed in my lunch — and you can have them. Believe me, they are fantastic!” He smiled, “Okay, one more time.” I put my left index finger on the scanner. All of a sudden he says, “I can’t believe it — it worked!” After that I got my digital photo taken, wrote a check for $132.50 (the cost of a five-year TWIC card), and went out to get the cookies!

I made the long trip home and began the two-month wait for the processing of my card. Processing involves printing the card, embedding it with a computer chip, and testing the chip. I checked the TWIC Web site, www.tsa.gov/twic, every week to monitor my card’s status. When it was ready for pick-up I had to make another appointment to go back to the same enrollment site to get it. Unlike when you get a new passport, the completed TWIC card will not be mailed to you. For me, that meant another five hour round trip and two ferry rides to Seattle in May to get my card activated and issued.

In retrospect, what struck me the most during my ten-week TWIC experience was not dealing with the oversights, poor planning, or bureaucratic hassles of getting my card. It was the realization that once again, foreign mariners are being held to a lower standard than U.S. merchant mariners. After 9/11 it was reported that Osama bin Laden had a financial interest in a number of foreign-flag ships that entered this country’s ports. I believe it’s very likely that terrorist organizations still have an interest in foreign ships, but the sailors working on them do not have to undergo the TWIC background checks, fingerprintings, and security screenings we do. Even if they are escorted in and out of a marine terminal, I don’t see any way that every foreign mariner will be frisked, run through a metal detector, or have all their belongings and bags completely searched each time they enter or leave. So, in my mind the question comes down to this: How can U.S. ports be “safe” when only American mariners and port workers are screened?

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’.

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