Questions still remain on who is responsible for container screening at ports and how it should be done. Alex Hughes reports
Before the US terrorist attacks of 2001, the question of who was responsible for luggage screening and how it should be done went largely unanswered. But post-September 11, that issue was brought into sharp focus and new directives on security screening changed everything.
Nowadays, it is almost impossible to conceive of anything getting on an aircraft that has not been either extensively screened or, in the case of cargo, dispatched by a trusted supplier. However, this is not yet the case with the maritime container market.
Ports and airports have evolved differently in the way that they react to evolving threats from terrorism. While equipment for both has developed in line with what is required of it, screening processes available to airports are much sharper than those adopted by ports.
Existing installations at airports, for example, have had to be rapidly adapted to ensure throughput screening of both baggage and cargo remains competitive. In contrast, screening sophistication at ports lags well behind.
At airports, governments, police, customs authorities and security agencies (such as the TSA in the US) now work hand-in-glove to ensure flights are as safe as they can be and that the airports themselves are relatively secure environments in which to do business.
Although 9/11 did impact on the ports industry, to date, no major vessel has been lost because of terrorism, which is perhaps one reason why there is no homogenous approach to port security. While it is true that access control at ports has been tightened up and perimeters have been secured, the screening of cargo within ports remains a pretty much a hit or miss activity.
“Post 9/11, everyone connected with ports has been buying and putting equipment into operation as they see fit,” an industry source told Port Strategy. “However, for a supplier of X-ray equipment, the existing situation is very complicated. Who are we supposed to be trying to sell our equipment to? Is it ports, terminals or customs agencies?”
Various international bodies are working to resolve such issues and take the industry to the next level, including the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations. They are working with various countries to try and understand what their needs are and how a common approach can be adopted to screening.
“The equipment capable of doing the job is available. Now we have to make it work more efficiently, both for the agents looking for contraband or explosives, and also for customs agencies that need to understand what is going on inside containers,” said the source.
Indeed, despite the non-uniform nature of today’s maritime screening market, the existing situation is viewed as an opportunity for those suppliers that have a good screening solution – not simply equipment - that will help ports run efficiently.
Significantly, while Port Strategy contacted major players in the supply of screening equipment for ports, only Smiths Detection was willing to give feedback “on the record”. Others preferred to give background information only, awaiting new global directives that could install a degree of continuity to the way that screening is currently being carried out at ports around the world.
Timothy Norton, Smiths Detection’s global market director for Ports & Borders, summarises the current screening disparities by noting that the range of containers that must be screened by port terminals globally can vary considerably not only between the many regions, but also by the different Customs agencies.
“Around 2%-3% of the total number of containers processed are generally inspected by a non-intrusive inspection (NII) device,” he estimates. “Screening is invariably for both outbound and inbound boxes, although percentages vary by location and threat level.”
Indeed, as far as industry is concerned, as a source revealed to Port Strategy, “There is absolutely no uniform approach. Worse still, there is no worldwide obligation to implement screening and, where this has been introduced, there has also been a lot of pushback.”
Yet the equipment to do the work does exist and is becoming ever more sophisticated. According to Mr Norton: “Nearly all ports and border crossing posts globally who want to use NII equipment have acquired this technology and are using it as part of their container inspection operations process. In fact, the market has now moved into a replacement mode as the initial wave of system acquisitions become obsolete and customers look to replace them with newer systems.”
But the question as to who should actually be buying the screening equipment remains a thorny one. While a few container terminals are the main purchasers, most are not. In the majority of countries, responsibility for acquiring screening equipment has been placed solely on the shoulders of Customs agencies or the police.
In fact, in some regions, the United Nations has assumed responsibility for a number of container scanning installations at ports. Equipment manufacturers have entered the market, too, offering third-party screening services to ports, either as operators of their own equipment or by charging per-box-screened.
Explaining why this outsourcing approach is catching on, one industry insider said: “Terminal managers will always find reasons not to buy equipment if they don’t have to. For example, if it’s not their ultimate responsibility to find contraband, why should their terminal bear the cost?”
The other major issue that now needs resolving is how screening should best be done.
One manufacturer, who asked not to be named, said that, while the technology undoubtedly works, where and how screening takes place is, in fact, “the real debate”. This is because screening for both the container owner and the terminal, represents a cost, since in most ports, boxes have to be shipped to a dedicated area for screening, which can mean first having to dig them out of the stack, transport them to the x-ray site and then wait while customs officials carry out the screening. It all takes time and, crucially, costs money.
Manufacturers are therefore now talking about having to sell “a solution” and not simply equipment. In other words, screening equipment has to fit naturally in the logistics chain within the port, not simply be an adjunct.
“What container owners are looking for is an integrated approach towards screening, one whereby the screening equipment forms part of the overall handling process,” said an industry source. “They don’t want their container to sit in the port any longer than is absolutely necessary. We can provide a solution that will facilitate agencies in finding the things they are looking for as quickly as possible. But our equipment only works efficiently if it is integrated into the container handling process. If it’s sitting at the back of the stacking yard, it can only scan containers that are brought to it – and that’s not very efficient. You have to locate it in a place where containers would naturally flow through so that it can screen boxes much faster.”
Multiple units taking up space
While there is plenty of good quality screening equipment available, as yet there isn’t a single unit that can do it all. Equipment exists that is capable of finding contraband, people, explosives, drugs and radiation, but no single machine can do everything. This, in itself, is significant, because it means somebody has to foot the cost of providing several different pieces of equipment. It also means that the overall footprint needed for screening equipment is larger than it would otherwise be.
There’s no obvious solution to this problem, which is compounded by the fact that the role of screening containers while usually part of a customs administrator’s security requirements, is tailored from country to country based on the types of threats that each face.
Smiths Detection’s Timothy Norton notes that most equipment now deployed is able to scan a 40-foot box within two to three minutes, with image interpretation taking a further 60-120 seconds.
“However, some agencies can take up to 15 minutes to process, depending on their container inspection operations approach,” he says. And while most screening equipment can now function in an automated mode, it is ultimately up to the Customs officers to decide whether a container is "suspect" or non-suspect".
“Although highly automated, agencies still prefer a human to make the final decision on a target's level of threat,” he says.
In terms of reducing the number of false positives, he observes that, with modern technology, these have been “greatly reduced”; however, he stresses that this depends greatly on the type of target or threat being inspected.
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