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TWIC: No Big Deal (Any More)

Easy does it. Honest!

Hilton Head Island, SC: Stand down. Stand easy. Unlock the doors. I received my Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card on Tuesday at about 0912 hours. After twice entering my private, 8 digit PIN code (I’d have to kill you if I divulged it) and then verifying that I understood and agreed to the parameters of the card, I departed with a very smart looking “hi-tech” credential which I later showed off to the family over a couple of beers while dangling my feet into the pool at our rental house on the beach. I have to be honest with you: It was no big deal.

On July 27th, and with no small amount of dread, I drove to Charleston, SC (apparently the closest TWIC center to my home base), and registered to begin the process of receiving my TWIC card. Like everyone else, I had heard the horror stories: Endless lines, equipment malfunctions at the centers, incompetence and then at the end of it all, the months of waiting to receive the credential. I also knew that for better or for worse, that I would write this article based on my experiences. I should tell you right now that (aside from my brilliant prose) this isn’t going to be very exciting. In the end, it has been the easiest part of my yet unfinished journey that will hopefully lead me to STCW compliance on my marine credentials.

I probably spent a combined total of 45 minutes at the TWIC registration center in Charleston. On the front end, the hardest part of the deal was to actually find their offices. After securing an appointment (never, ever go there without one), I plugged in the street address into my GPS and set out for the initial vetting. I deliberately arrived about an hour early at the nondescript, white three story building. And, I’m not saying that the TWIC center is situated in a bad neighborhood, but I had to travel through one to get there and was none-too-happy when the building’s directory showed no mention of “TWIC,” “TSA,” or anything remotely close to any of that. Thinking maybe that the location of the center might actually be a closely guarded state secret, I went outside to find my Blackberry.

Back out to the car I went where I telephoned the TWIC center to ask if I was at the right place. They assured me that I was and further told me that it was on the third floor. Getting warmer now. It turns out that the TWIC registration function (at least here) had been subbed out to a firm named EMSI. Outside the shabby elevator on the third floor in this rapidly aging architectural gem, scotch taped to the wall, was a simple piece of white copy paper that said “TWIC,” with a little arrow to show the way. With that mystery now solved, I entered their offices, signed in and began to fill out the paperwork. A lot of people pre-register on line (I did not), but quite frankly, the documentation doesn’t take very long and I don’t think that failure to pre-register will impact anyone’s experience, one way or another.

I was out of there in less than thirty minutes. This included a long list of questions regarding my character, suitability to receive the credential and finally required my signature on a very intimidating document in which I promised that I was not, in any way whatsoever, a threat to society. They also took my fingerprints – about six different ways – on one of those really cool electronic machines. Finally, my photograph was taken, before which I was admonished not to smile. I was suitably rewarded with the worst headshot I have ever seen. That photo remains a state secret, to be viewed only by security guards at our nation’s ports, whenever necessary.

Once done, the pleasant woman dismissed me and she advised, “It will be two to six weeks. Check online at the TWIC web site to follow the status of your card.” That’s it. Aside from the generally run down appearance of the offices and its general surroundings, I encountered no problems. Normally paranoid about this type of meeting, I brought my MMD, a driver’s license, a valid U.S. Passport and every document from my professional mariner’s notebook with me. You will need only two pieces of government issued identification when you go.

As I departed, they were starting to stack up in the hall. Most of these applicants were, I was told, from the previous day’s appointment list. There had been an equipment failure the day before and they had all been rescheduled. So, it doesn’t always go this smoothly, but I will tell you that it pays to show up early. Good tip for those of you venturing out. Finally, and on the way out of the bulding, I saw another fellow scratching his head while reading the building’s directory on the first floor. I asked him, “TWIC?” He shook his head yes and I replied simply, “Third Floor. Turn left out of the elevator.” He might still be there if I hadn’t interceded. Driving away, I wondered how difficult it would be to put the words “TWIC” next to EMSI’s terse entry in the directory.

As soon as I got home, I began to query the TWIC web site for the status of my application. The efficiency of the system, at least to my unschooled eyes, quickly became apparent. Within twenty-four hours, regular updates began to pop up, showing a steady progression leading to the eventual production of the TWIC Credential. My application status progressed from, “Adjudication Processing – in Progress”, to “Card Issuance – Card Request Initiated” (further explaining that the application had been approved and had moved to the production stage), and then to “Card Issuance – In Transit to Site,” which let me know that the card had been printed and shipped to Charleston. On August 11th – and just 15 days after my initial visit – the status of my application had been changed to “Card Issuance – Card Ready for Pickup.” Before I could then schedule my pick up day to coincide with a week’s holiday on the South Carolina coast, they had already left an automated message on my voice mail advising me that the card was indeed ready.

Tuesday’s card activation was anticlimactic. I began the day at 0650 hours with a two hour drive to Charleston from Hilton Head with my brother-in-law in tow. We arrived in good form and I checked in one minute early for my 9 a.m. appointment. The attendant noted this and remarked, “8:59 – good job.” It was over in about fifteen minutes, during which time my Canadian in-law cooled his jets sitting on some cheesy folding chairs, sandwiched in between two massive guys who were also waiting for one thing or another. As we departed, he noted somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Someone is playing a cruel joke on these guys. All these burly seamen and nothing but Vogue, and Glamour magazines to read in the waiting area.” I had to laugh. I also realized that if the selection of reading material was the biggest complaint that anyone could muster on that day, then the TWIC process had come a long way since its rocky inception.

I have no doubt that the early complaints directed at the TWIC program had merit and were based on real and sometimes painful experiences. Additionally, the initial rush is now over and I also had the luxury of waiting until I was good and ready to go and get the credential. Not everyone can do that. Beyond this, I can’t attest to what goes on elsewhere in the registration process. The gang at Charleston, SC clearly knows what they are doing. I took a moment to let them know just that as I was getting ready to leave. In response, they hurriedly got me a “service evaluation form” to fill out and (literally begged) me to do it before I left the building. Maybe TSA and TWIC are desperate for a little bit of good news. On this particular day, I was happy to provide them with some sunshine.

A good lesson to take away from all of this is the need to show up early and on time. I never saw any long lines or hoards of people waiting their turn, but on both occasions, the waiting list was accumulating rapidly just as I was departing. Get the earliest appointment you can at whatever center you are heading for and do NOT go without first securing an appointment. And, if anything is going to go wrong at any TWIC center, I’m guessing that it will likely happen later in the day, which will only exacerbate the time spent waiting for service.

Over the past twelve months, I have seen scores of letters and articles bemoaning the TWIC process, or lack thereof. I can’t add my comments to that list. With the card firmly in hand, however, what I am hearing is that the “card readers” are not yet in universal use everywhere and where they are being used, they sometimes do not work. And, an old business associate of mine (from my former life as a cargo surveyor / marine consultant) told me recently, “Rarely do the security guards at the oil terminals know what a TWIC is. Typically, they ask for something more recognizable – like a driver’s license.” Go figure. Already, I feel a lot safer. - MarEx
 

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Joseph Keefe is the Editor in Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He is (sort of) on holiday this week. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com. Join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685