Fire Arms onboard Vessels : A welcome to the new and the brave

We are entering a rather turbulent period over the last four weeks following the Beluga Nomination Incident. Someone could say that the timing is critical. The industry as a whole has arrived at a tipping point regarding fire arms onboard vessels. After the incident we have seen a rather strong set of press releases by the majority of the round table associations.

The momentum is critical. Despite what officially is not confirmed, it is a market secret that many operators, including first class shipping houses have started using private security personnel onboard vessels. The are not shouting about it but they employ the tactic for sure. Forgot to mention that despite what Best Management Practices state there is NO successful incident so far involving ships employing armed security personnel. We have also seen that a Russian Tanker successfully escaped the pirates few days ago just by employing some fire arm shots to the pirate skiffs.

ICS initially responded with a rather realistic approach of understanding the need for private security and during previous week ICS chairman Spyros Polemis said: "ICS has had to acknowledge that the decision to engage armed guards, whether military or private, should be made by the ship operator after due consideration of all risks, and subject to approval of the vessel's flag state and insurers.". On the aftermath of that the International Union of Marine Insurance has welcomed the announcement that ICS is now taking a more neutral position on the use of private armed security personnel on board ships to protect them from pirates.

INTERTANKO has made a step further towards the same direction by issuing some sort of advise to operators, namely instructions in order to account for:

  • Flag, P&I and Port State Approval
  • Command and control protocols for the dedicated security personnel onboard
  • port states will permit vessels to enter port limits or berth with firearms on board.
  • Legal consequences and complexities in the event of an armed guard using lethal force on a pirate, or any other civilian or crew member in error
  • Safety considerations for the carriage of those personnel onboard

IMO on the contrary has taken no official statement. Someone may notice that IMO is not a member of the round table that developed the Anti-Piracy BMPs. It is certainly not objecting these BMPs but we have seen no initiative from the most authoritative body in the industry. So it all comes to the soulders of the poor operator. 80% plus of the market consists of companies operating one to three vessels, how about them ? Certainly the bigger players operating substantial fleets have the necessary financing and expertise to handle these issues. Regret that those small operators have been left alone to fight the issue.

An operator actually has to not only solve out the complexity of selecting the security team (depending on own set criteria) but he has to fight against everybody:

  • The Flag state is NOT willing to provide approval (especially official approval) to board the security team onboard
  • The Security personnel CANNOT carry proper fire arms onboard. There are several restrictions obviously on trafficking of fire arms (especially of the latest technology) all over the airports for example. South Africa recently requested some three weeks advance notice to clear fire arm gear on personnel disembarking
  • Each Contracting Government cannot accept in advance that armed security personnel will be onboard vessels with severe consequences in such an occasion for the Master, the operator the vessel and the vessel stakeholders in general
  • Insurers on the other hand may have a balanced approach. Such a development is certainly not only reducing the risk but increases the income fees. It is however a bit difficult these days to get clearance from the P&I Clubs on the issue

    As stated above we have entered on a turbulent era. Fire Arms are here to stay onboard vessels until a more effective solution is being reached. The fastest the regulatory framework develops on the issue the better for all those involved : Owners, insurers, charterers and oops, not to forget the crew.

    It is their life at stake during these Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean Transits. We have to account for their needs. And do something about it, actively without hesitating.

    So fire arms are here to stay, till further notice: A welcome to the new and the brave.