As pirate attacks on commercial vessels continue to rise, the number of successful hijacks continues to fall, in no small part due to the effectiveness of private maritime security companies. The armed deterrent is holding the thin blue line separating the captivity of seafarers from commercial viability for a struggling shipping industry.
Whilst Shipowners have accepted the armed deterrent on board their vessels, there is closer interest creeping into the management of the many PMSC's purporting to provide the 'best service' on the market. The 'regulation' word is gaining traction in the security sector and in an environment free from any one accepted and enforced standard, confusion is also beginning to enter the debate as security companies witness various standards and compliance measures surface from a variety of political and commercial standpoints.
This far, nearly all PMSC's are signatories to the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Companies (ICOC). The ICOC was originally designed for private security companies operating on land, and in the absence of anything else to benchmark the fast growing maritime security sector, have been adopted by the maritime security sector, keen to add credibility to their service in the eyes of the shipping sector and thereby increase their commercial capability.
The ICOC is now widely accepted in the sector as 'first base' in terms of complying with an international standard. So far it has remained somewhat innocuous, untouched and untried. But most recently it was reported that it is taking its code much more seriously and beginning to shape itself to benchmark standards of service specifically for the maritime sector, but now with sanction. This is timely, as the UK Government has also recently announced the appointment of a special interest group within the Aerospace, Defence Security and Space sectors (ADS): the Security in Complex Environments Group (SCEG). As the UK's industry partner for the regulation and accreditation of private security providers, ADS is to introduce a set of standards for the delivery of private security in both the maritime and land domains. Worthy of note is that the SCEG is focused purely upon UK security companies - wet and dry - registered in the UK (which in the maritime domain, most are) and those MARSEC firms sub-contracting UK nationals - predominantly ex UK Military. Commensurate to these standards is also the ISO 9001, widely understood across industry and complied with by PMSC's; a worthy addition to the list of standards. It is anticipated that both the ICOC and the SCEG will charge likely contenders for future accreditation and subsequent regulation. The ICOC estimates its costs at $5m per year; costs for the SCEG are yet to be announced.
Another prominent benchmark of standards for PMSC's is the 'Security Association for the Maritime Industry' (SAMI). An international and independent organisation, it has been operating on behalf of its members for nearly a year now and has corralled 150 security companies under one trade association in an effort to provide a conduit between the shipping sector and quality maritime security providers. In an effort to set a minimum standard of service and delivery, the association has worked hard to offer some transparency for a sector that has been damaged by lower cost services from less reputable operators, offering a shady form of delivery in an effort to win business. SAMI's standard is based upon the IMO guidelines for the selection and use of PMSC's (1405/6) and has already gained resonance in an industry keen to identify reputable providers. It has also been busy, introducing a working accreditation programme already endorsed by one of the Flag Registries: The Marshall islands, and soon to be presented to the shipping community via the IMO at MSC80 next month. SAMI's accreditation is purely voluntary for its members, the cost of which is borne by each security company, but increasingly being recognized and accepted by the shipping sector to be sufficient for the safe and reliable delivery of armed security.
It is little surprise that the maritime security sector is unsure of which 'standard' to comply to, there are many vying for the same space of trust and credibility. And yet the standard has already been set with the IMO's guidelines for the selection and use of PMSC's in IMO circular 1405/06 and 1408. Viewed through the eyes of the customer, the shipping sector, the IMO guidelines are the minimum standards to be achieved, this far nothing more, and certainly nothing less.
Of course it is in the interests of everyone to require and enforce high standards. BIMCO, the industry's largest shipping association has just launched the 'GUARDCON', designed to standardize the contract between PMSC and Ship-owner. It also seeks to clarify roles, responsibilities and most importantly of all the separation of liability between security team and master. For a security company placing guys, guns and skillsets on board commercial vessels, the whole process is an extremely complex and challenging undertaking. For the ship owner, it is equally highly risky, not least where most feel nervous at the mere sight of a weapon, but more importantly the issues of liability and culpability in the event of dire consequences. Yet despite these inherent risks, the armed deterrent is acknowledged as a necessary (and proven) measure to safeguard master, crew, vessel and cargo through high-risk areas.
It is natural to assume that for the customer it should be gratifying to know that a security provider is delivering something to best of their ability. Currently, a ship owner wishing to scrutinise a security provider, an independent background check is completed through a 'due diligence' process. Exactly what is contained in this process is often a closely guarded secret; a security company waits for an impromptu inspection by clipboard to note how it delivers its product. The "wheels" of the security company are kicked thoroughly by the client, a necessary task in the absence of one 'standard'.
Obviously from the security companies perspective, it would like to make the 'due diligence' aspect as pain free as possible, and the acceptance of a minimum standard via accreditation potentially offers the customer a one stop check of quality, for many being signatory to the ICOC has been the first of such checks. However, the private maritime security sector is still unregulated and whilst the majority of companies offer a very high quality transparent service, concerns remain that there will always be others who will choose not to comply with any standard and offer maritime security at less cost. For a financially beleaguered shipping sector, smaller operators might be tempted by these cheaper and un-regulated security providers in a valiant bid to cut the cost of maritime security on a transit.
As in all businesses, ultimately, it is for the customer to decide which providers to contract, a decision driven in the main by the quality of the product and the value for money. In the security sector, there is additional impetus for transparency in the delivery of such a high-risk product. Whether that standard of service is insisted upon by the client, adopted and demonstrated by the provider through accreditation or ignored entirely, only the shipping community can decide as to which standard it wants to uphold. Whether the cost of due diligence or accreditation is borne by the customer or the provider, both are striving for the same thing, a quality product offering a credible deterrent against piracy, ensuring the safe passage of seafarers across the oceans. Regulation of the maritime security sector is coming; many PMSC's welcome this and as far as seafarers and their families are concerned, just behind the last line of defence against hijack and captivity, this can only be hugely reassuring.
Paul Gibbins is an independent maritime communications consultant. Formerly the Director of Communications for a leading UK maritime security company and an ex Royal Marine, he has worked on various public relations projects on behalf of the United Nations, the US & UK Governments in Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo.
The views expressed are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect those of OCEANUSLive.