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ISPS – Ten Years On

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Steven Jones

ISPS – Ten Years On, by Steven Jones*

To misquote Shakespeare, when we think of maritime security, some industries are born secure, some achieve security, and others have security thrust upon them.

Shipping is very much in the latter category, and it is now ten years since the International Ship and Port Facility security (ISPS) Code was first debated at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and rolled out onto a bemused, disinterested and occasionally hostile industry.

At the time I was working in a consultancy looking to break into the maritime security sector. Fresh out of university having begrudgingly decided to move ashore, I landed in the “real world” faced with trying to create a business built on the foundations of the IMO requirements.

My personal experience of security, or perhaps the lack of it, stemmed from a rather frightening incident off Thailand. A gang of “pirates” burst into my cabin carrying knives, and while thankfully no-one was injured it made me think about how vessels should be made more secure. My experience was minor, and pales into complete insignificance when we consider the terror that so many seafarers have gone through, but for me it was a wake-up call.

It made me realise how little emphasis there was on security. With cuts to crew sizes and the increased work load introduced by the ISM Code seafarers were at risk because there was such limited appreciation of the threats they were facing, and of the ways in which they could, and should, be countered.

Up until September 11, 2001 terrorism was not really considered an issue, and even piracy was deemed to be relatively contained. Issues of cargo crime remained, but on the whole, security was not on the agenda. Then everything changed with the attacks on the World Trade Center. Suddenly the maritime security rules and regulations which had hitherto lain as relatively obscure IMO and flag State guidance were dusted down and forged into the ISPS Code.

Over the past decade many in shipping have wrestled to fully see the benefits of the ISPS Code. This is perhaps based on something of a miscomprehension. All too often the assumption has been made that the Code was created to keep vessels “secure”. In actual fact it was primarily created as a means of ensuring that ships did not pose a threat to the ports, and thereby the nations they call into or whose waters they “innocently” pass through. Naturally a by-product of this was to be more secure vessels, but the thrust was from a different direction.

When it becomes clear that ISPS is more about ships as a threat than a victim then it perhaps easier to understand the advantages it can deliver. The Code becomes a facilitator of trade – it shows that ships are taking some measures to protect themselves, which in turn provides a degree of reassurance, and a means of verifying that compliance.

As an illustration of the true scale, extent and nature of ISPS success, the United States Coastguard (USCG) recently addressed a US Homeland Security Committee with a report on how it manages maritime security.

The testimony was a review of the US response to security threats, their application of the ISPS Code and the capabilities required to make their security systems work. This view actually paints a realistic picture of how ISPS works, and of the systems it feeds into.

The ISPS Code has been seen as a vital element of the USCG protection strategy. Indeed the requirements placed on shipping allow the US to, “combat threats furthest from our borders”. The ISPS Code provides an international angle, regime and framework. Without the baseline common security denominator, it would be difficult to leverage their international partners and to gain reassurance that vessels are working towards their own security.

The security framework appears to be working well from this compliance perspective, and any vessels under suspicion or arriving from non-ISPS compliant countries are required to take additional security precautions. They may be boarded before being granted permission to enter, and in specific cases, may be refused entry.

ISPS is the tool which drives these checks, and is also the mechanism against which judgements are possible. So, has been ISPS been a success? Yes, for the things which it was actually intended. However, for actual physical security and a means of keeping seafarers and vessels safe and secure it has probably fallen short. It has been the Somali pirate hijacks and Best Management Practices which have prompted that evolution.

Granted, there is some very useful guidance within “part B” of the Code – and there are many companies which have been able to bring their safety, environmental and operational philosophies together to create a genuinely more secure environment. However, it is more about “soft security”, checks and balances of identification, locks and alarms – not the hardening of the vessels which was so desperately needed when the pirates came attacking.

There have been many over the years who argued that the best use of the Ship Security Plan in times of pirate attack would be to drop it through the bottom of the skiff. Sadly, just as with the International Safety Management (ISM) Code before it – there have been all too many companies which have either paid lip service to the requirements, or who paid consultants to produce something for them to fill their shelves. That approach has done nothing for safety, security or the popularity of the requirements which are imposed by the Codes.

However there have been successes, and perhaps the most significant is the move towards transparency in shipping. The modern shipping industry cannot be the secretive place of the past – the competing demands for the oceans are too great for that. As Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) becomes ever more prevalent and important, vessels will find themselves vying for space at sea which they had hitherto had to themselves. In order to justify their place in this brave new world, they have (and will continue) to comply with the laws, regulation, Codes and demands of others – the need to be secure and provide information are within these demands, and they do bring benefits.

For companies who have created a genuine security management culture, then there are clear benefits – for the others it just means more work for the company and ship security officers. They say that if love hurts then you must be doing it wrong – the same perhaps can be said of maritime security.

The Nautical Institute (NI) has not shied away from the difficult issues surrounding maritime security, and in the wake of the adoption of the ISPS Code began work on what was to be a “practical guide to maritime security”. Now some six years later, and in the wake of the Somali piracy epidemic, the NI is set to re-launch a new set of maritime security guides. We have looked to develop guides which allow practitioners to break down security into its component parts, and which can provide clear guidance on what should be done, how and why. Security is vital, it can keep seafarers, vessels and cargoes safer – but it needs to be understood, appreciated and the right resources applied to get the job done.

Maritime Security – a practical guide is available from The Nautical Institute price: £40; ISBN: 978 1 906915 45 2 http://www.nautinst.org/en/shop/checkout/shop-product-details.cfm/maritime-security

*Maritime Director, The Security Association for the Maritime Industry



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