Most armed guards on ships are not following safety regulations with breaches including firing live ammunition during on-board drills, according to a company that vets security firms for ship owners and insurers.
A “significant majority” of guards operating in the most dangerous trade lanes off East Africa don’t comply with safety laws and industry guidelines, James Wilkes, managing director of Oxford, U.K.-based adviser Gray Page, said by phone yesterday. In some cases they don’t have gun licenses or insurance, he said, citing surveys his company conducted.
The threat of Somali pirates has led to as many as 180 companies providing armed guards on as much as a third of the ships sailing in the Indian Ocean, compared with less than 10 percent a year ago, according to Wilkes. Guards need to meet U.K. and European Union laws, as well as United Nations’ International Maritime Organization guidelines, until a uniform protocol is developed, he said.
“These things can take time. It doesn’t mean we’re going to let armed security personnel operate lawlessly until such time,” he said. If a crew member were to get killed and the owner’s due diligence wasn’t carried out, the lawyers would “have a field day.”
About 23,000 ships carrying $1 trillion of trade pass through the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and Somalia every year, the U.K. government estimates. Maritime piracy costs the global economy an estimated $7 billion to $12 billion annually, according to the IMO.
Gray Page surveys security companies on behalf of ship owners and insurers to assess legal compliance, safety and professionalism, Wilkes said. He declined to say how many had been evaluated since the vetting program began last year.
Somali pirates attacked 31 vessels and captured four in the last three months of 2011, the London-based International Maritime Bureau said Jan. 19, compared with 90 attacks and 19 hijackings a year earlier. Global attacks fell for the first time in five years helped by naval forces’ pre-emptive strikes, the bureau said.
While the IMO doesn’t endorse using armed guards, more countries are starting to allow them on vessels that fly their flag. The U.K., which changed its policy in October, needs to provide clear guidance on when private guards can open fire, the cross-party House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said in a Jan. 5 report.
Some underwriters give discounts to ships that hire armed guards, Ole Wikborg, president of the International Union of Marine Insurance, said at a meeting in London Jan. 24.
Clearer Standards Needed
Gray Page isn’t the only firm to monitor guards’ compliance. The Security Association for the Maritime Industry, a trade group representing more than 100 companies, started an accreditation program with an independent certification body, the National Security Inspectorate, on Feb. 1. About 20 percent of the group’s members have registered to start the process and some of them are expected to complete it by the end of the year, SAMI founder Peter Cook said.
“Standards will be raised, and hopefully incidents of sloppy drills and unnecessary use of weapons will be minimized,” he said by phone today. “Without the accreditation mark, maritime security companies won’t be able to charge the same rates and won’t get the same recognition.”
Clearer standards will help ship owners choose safe and professional guards, said Jakob Larsen, security officer at the Baltic and International Maritime Council, the largest trade group representing two-thirds of the world’s ship owners. A standard contract for ship owners and private security companies will be finalized in a few weeks, he said.
“Once we have a set of standards against which you can benchmark companies, those companies that do not live up to the standards will find it more difficult to get employment with the more responsible ship owners,” Larsen said by phone. “We think the area must be regulated.”
The European Union naval force patrolling in the southern Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and western Indian Ocean typically has 10 warships at most to cover 2 million square nautical miles, its website shows.