With US-led regulations looking to enforce a 100% container scanning rule for homeward bound shipments, will the region's ports have to turn to costly technological equipment to avoid delays in container movement?
In a world ever-conscious of the possible threat of a terrorist attack, many in the industry might argue that the escalation of tougher container scanning measures for the shipping industry was inevitable.
In the case of a serious event occurring, those ports that have comprehensive scanning will face the least amount of disruption to their operations.
The fact is that several major ports are already adhering to the scanning of US-based containers as part of the US government's Container Security Initiative (CSI), launched in 2002 by the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.
However, with the government planning to implement laws ensuring that 100% of containers bound for its shores are scanned by 2012, the potential cost and delays involved in such a large scale container scanning reality has had those involved in the sea freight sector wondering whether this is a step too far.
With the further considerations regarding what type of scanner to use, which containers to scan, and exactly what to look for, whilst at the same time not disrupting the smooth flow of container movements, the industry certainly does appear to have a minefield to deal with.
"Buying a scanning device or, more properly, a scanning system is a decision that each port must make. The decision may be driven by government mandate, trade economics, a protection against terrorist attack or a combination of the three," explains John Hensley, vice president for business development in the security and transportation technology business unit at SAIC.
Well-placed to advise on container scanning technology, the US-based solutions and technical services company has been involved in providing security solutions to the sector.
"The scanning systems offer a higher degree of security to the container itself, meaning that cargo can actually move quicker through the supply chain. In the case of a serious event occurring, those ports that have comprehensive scanning will face the least amount of disruption to their operations," he continues.
As Hensley points out, the range of scanning 'equipment' can range from a bomb detector dog to a radiation scan at a drive-through portal (RPM) - with each technique applicable depending on what needs to be detected.
A radiation scan, for instance, can detect radioactive material, but if done through a hand-scanning device or RPM, it cannot determine exactly what is in the container by itself.
On the other hand, an x-ray or gamma ray system can tell the operator what is in the container but does not detect radioactive emissions. If looking for non-nuclear, traditional explosives, again the sensing devices by themselves are relatively slow and cannot see into the container.
"So the first challenge is to determine what you want to search for and then identify the most effective combination of scanning devices to meet that goal," Hensley points out.
"Next you have to select equipment that will effectively do the required scanning without slowing down or otherwise complicating the movement of international trade."
As many in the shipping industry will acknowledge, this is easier said than done, and infact the slowing of container movement due security issues can become a major problem particularly in the busier ports.
For this reason, it is imperative that the design and installation of the scanning equipment at the port is set up to ensure the most efficient process possible.
Very fast scanners are needed in order to not create bottlenecks on the terminal.
"The scanning equipment must be flexible enough to occupy minimal space and fit within the port or terminal's existing operational footprint. To maximise the use of the scanning equipment in the most efficient manner possible requires a major industrial engineering exercise," Hensley advises.
Keith Nuttall, commercial manager, Gulftainer agrees. "The key to success lies with having trained operators and fast, efficient transportation in order to keep costs and delays to a minimum," he adds.
Acknowledged in the industry as one of the 'fastest container terminals in the world' in 2006, as well as second in the Middle East in respect of the volume of containers handled in 2006, Gulftainer manages container terminals in Port Khalid and Khorfakkan on behalf of the Sharjah Port.
"The container scanning at Sharjah Ports is under the the control of Sharjah Ports and Customs Authority," explains Nuttall.
"After the implementation of the ISPS (International Ship and Port Facility Security) code, Sharjah Port Authority decided that it would introduce scanners at all of its ports as a deterrent to terrorists utilising the port to smuggle their weapons or materials."
At the port, scanning is carried out on a 24 hour basis by trained operators from the SPA.
"Once a container is identified by Sharjah Customs for scanning, the container terminal arrange for the transportation to the x-ray site. The scanners are located adjacent to the container terminals to ensure minimum delays to shippers and/or consignees," he adds.
Likewise, Steen Davidsen, CEO of APM Terminals Bahrain BSC, another major container terminals operator, personally believes that whilst there is mixed opinions as to the extent to which security measures are deemed necessary, a lot is being done to accommodate all parties. However the issue of avoiding delays remains a challenge.
"This is a constant challenge for the port operator," he admits. "Very fast scanners are needed in order to not create bottlenecks on the terminal, and we also have to consider the inspection process taking into account the safety of all those involved."
Deciding exactly which containers to scan is usually left to the relevant authorities in the country importing or exporting the freight.
"In some countries, the containers are randomly scanned but the majority of countries use a targeting system approach to make better use of their scanning resources - the elements which are internal to governments and not made public," highlights Hensley.
"Bilateral or multilateral treaties, compacts and agreements can be used to set an agreed upon level of container scanning between countries that are trading partners."
Despite the US government pushing towards more stringent measures, other regions including the European Union continue to call for more of a 'risk-based' approach to improve container security.
Infact, the most recent US-government programme to impact on container security, the Secure Freight Initiative (SFI), itself builds upon a risk-based approach to security in the international supply chain.
This (SFI) evaluation process will identify the vulnerabilities in the supply chain and seek to find solutions that do not hinder trade.
The first phase of the initiative, beginning this year, includes pilot test programmes taking place in six ports around the world, deploying a combination of technology and nuclear detection devices to allow containers to be scanned for radiation and information risk factors before permitted to depart for the United States.
The participating ports include Port Qasim in Pakistan, Puerto Cortes in Honduras, Southampton in the United Kingdom, Port Salalah in Oman, Port of Singapore and the Gamman Terminal at Port Busan in Korea.
The initiative hopes to ensure that the flow of commerce for shippers and terminal operators remains both 'uninterrupted and secure'.
"The tests will not only assess the effective scanning of cargo but the transmission and analysis of the data generated by those scans. If the tests are successful, the US government intends to expand the programme to other cooperating countries," adds Hensley.
As one of the major terminal operators entering into the SFI, DP World is very supportive to the initiative.
Not surprisingly for one of the region's leading port and terminal operators, ranked as 8th top container port worldwide, container security is an issue that is taken very seriously.
DP World already participates in the Container Security Initiative (CSI) at 13 of its terminals, which permits US customs officers based in these terminals to inspect containers bound for the US.
"We are a strong supporter of the CSI programme as it not only protects our business interests but also those of our customers, partners and the wider supply chain," emphasises David Fairnie, director of security, DP World.
Furthermore, the operator is part of the SFI pilot programme at Southampton Container Terminal in the UK and at Qasim International Container Terminal in Pakistan.
"This evaluation process will identify the vulnerabilities in the supply chain and seek to find solutions that do not hinder trade," states Fairnie.
He believes that the SFI pilot project is very important in identifying the most effective way of implementing container scanning without adversely impacting on the supply chain and world trade operationally or financially.
"Of course that also includes both DP World and our customers' businesses," he points out.
One of the keys to aiding this scenario undoubtedly lies with technology.
Currently, as Fairnie explains, the most common types of container scanner deployed by customs agencies are high energy x-ray systems, used to scan "high risk containers" identified and selected by using a customs risk profiling process.
"Future integrated systems (as piloted in the SFI) will include optical character recognition (picture of the outside of box), radiation portal monitors (radiation levels within the box) and non intrusive imaging (x-raying the contents of the box) with the system configured in such a way that all (100%) containers are scanned. No profiling will be needed with this type of scanning model," he says.
With the past three years focusing on the development of such technologies, allowing the scanning of high volumes of containers whilst achieving the aim of gathering the required data (radiation and x-ray), Fairnie is confident that this will indeed make a major difference.
"In the SFI pilot, early indications are that the required data is being accurately collected without any adverse impact on operations," he adds.
Despite this positive outlook, the cost of container scanning continues to remain a concern for many of the world's ports and facilities.
A 100% scanning law, even if just implemented by the United States, could put a burden on the shipping industry as a whole.
However, with almost half of incoming US trade (by value) arriving via containers onboard ships, to miss out on this lucrative market may leave many with little or no choice but to comply.
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