Dossier: Focus on the port environment

Georgia Ports and US Customs and Border Protection – a partnership that works

17 October 2023
By Alma Rodriguez, General Manager, Georgia Ports Authority Customer Service Center

The Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) develops, maintains and operates ocean and inland river ports within Georgia, United States. Its top priority is to ensure the seamless movement of cargo for its customers while enforcing security and environmental protection requirements. For more than 30 years, the GPA has fostered a trusted partnership with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) to ensure it is doing all it can in this regard.

This partnership encompasses all levels of the Authority. GPA President and CEO Griff Lynch, staff from the Customer Service and Container Operations, and many others work with various Customs entities. From the Port Director and Assistant Port Director to the CBP Watch Commander and agriculture officers, they share one common goal – keeping the Port, and the country, safe and secure.

Specialized team

To facilitate cargo flows while ensuring they adhere to government regulations, the Customer Service Center has created a specialized, Customs-focused team to assist Port customers with release/entry inquiries. Thanks to the interconnection between the Port and USCBP IT systems, the team has visibility into the “hold” and “release” status of manifested cargo, as well as the status of freight being inspected at the Container Examination Station, enabling it to assist with answering customer inquiries and act as a liaison between beneficial cargo owners, Customs house brokers, truckers, ocean carriers, and USCBP.

The primary focus of this team, and of Customer Service management, is to facilitate ongoing dialogue between the external customers and USCBP, while adhering to all USCBP guidelines. The team also ensures customers are following proper protocol when working to get their freight released. The Port Authority understands there will be times when USCBP will not share information on certain shipments that are of a highly sensitive nature and require additional investigation. With that understanding, in such situations the team notifies the customers concerned that they need to contact USCBP directly about any further questions or assistance they may need regarding their shipment. All this cooperation has garnered a level of mutual respect from all parties.

The specialized team consists of employees chosen on the basis of their skill sets and knowledge of the industry. The team members have wide-ranging experience in the industry as well as within the GPA, combining 70 years of work at the Ports. They have previously worked in Container Operations, Gate Operations and Customer Service, and this has given them extensive knowledge and understanding of the GPA, the Container Examinations Station and U.S. Customs and Border Protection functions and processes – and of how these three entities operate.

The team members can also count on the Customs Service Center management team, whose industry knowledge brings the total up to more than 110 years. The management team is made up of individuals who worked on the Ocean Carrier side of the business before moving over to Georgia Ports, thus gaining port experience as well. This extensive knowledge has been of great benefit in building the partnership between the GPA and USCBP.

Government Services team

Being able to work closely with the USCBP’s Centralized Examination Station (CES) is also key to expediting releases for the customers, and port authorities that operate their own terminals should consider designating a space for Customs inspections. At the Port of Savannah, a Government Services team works hand-in-hand with the CES and the Port customers to help expedite cargo flow. The team uses the N4 Terminal Operating System. Through the connectivity to USCBP systems, the team have full visibility of the status of shipments moving through the GPA. The existence of an on-terminal Customs warehouse makes it possible to speed up the release of cargo that has cleared inspection, so it can go back into the stream of logistics. Instead of being hauled by off-terminal drays that may get tied up in traffic, or being held up waiting for a “Permit to Transfer” to be issued, containers need only be shifted from the stacks to the warehouse, and back.

Induction training

Another major focus of the Customer Service Center is the proper education and training of all new employees, including cross-training with all our specialized and Government Services teams. All Customer Service representatives are put through a six-week training course, with evaluations performed at the 30-, 60- and 90-day marks. On their first day, they are given a training manual that includes their schedule for the next six weeks, and some quick links to easy reference guides, Georgia Ports Authority reference videos and Customer Service training videos. Towards the end of their training, they are placed with a team member they can shadow for a minimum of one week observing how we answer emails, and another week on the phones. Once they have completed the basic training, new employees are given the opportunity to cross-train with other internal Georgia Ports departments such as the Container Operations team, Gate Operations and our intermodal staff, to name a few. This helps to give them an even better insight into operations here at Georgia Ports. After all of this training has been completed, our management team works to identify the individual new employees’ strengths so that they can be placed in a role that works for them, our customers and the team.

Going many steps further 

The Customer Service Center management team has gone a step further by participating in monthly partnership meetings, quarterly pest risk management meetings that help with awareness of any potential invasive pests, and quarterly brokers meetings. We also facilitate meetings between beneficial cargo owners and USCBP to help customers better understand Customs and Border Protection guidelines and protocol. Assisting the U.S. Department of Agriculture with access to our Port for research purposes is another aspect of our partnership, which is critical for monitoring any environmental impacts of possible imported noxious weeds.

By attending these meetings, working with all government entities, sharing information, ensuring our Customer Service team members receive proper training, and having the visibility tools needed to observe cargo moving through our facility, we are able to contribute to enhanced compliance and add an extra layer of environmental protection and security, which continues to be an important focus of the Georgia Ports Authority.

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