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This is a real scenario: a containership is two days out of a port with another two and half days before it arrives at its next port of call. It is 02.00 on a Saturday when the crew notice fumes coming out of one of the hatches. Checking the dangerous cargo manifest (DCM) on board shows that 20 containers out of the 40 stowed in that hatch are carrying hazardous cargo. Of those 20 containers, seven belong to the vessel operator; the other 13 are from five different partners.
The crew follows procedure and alerts their management. Except the management is not at the last port or near the next port where there might be hazardous information available. Checking their systems only tells them what cargo they put on their ship, not what their partners put on it. Since it is 02.00, there is no-one to check at the next port whether the DCM has arrived – by whatever means – and the operations people at the last port have left for the day. The vessel cannot even email the DCM because they do not have a soft copy. Faxing doesn’t work from the ship because the DCM is done on 11x17-inch paper and when shrunk to fit the fax the font is too small and becomes unreadable. By the way, the cell phone the crew is using is going to hit a dead zone in about 30 minutes that will last for close to an hour.
At a time when communications is vital, management is “dead in the water” (pun intended) to give the vessel any help. They have no visibility as to what is in those other 13 containers. In fact, they can’t call the partners and ask them what’s in the containers, because they don’t even have the container numbers in their system. That information is only on the DCM on board the vessel and management doesn’t have access to it.
If this sounds like I made all this up, I didn’t have to. The vessel scenario is based on a real incident (although I changed some details to stay out of trouble with the lawyers) and these are real procedures used by water carriers in more than one port.
On a regular day, it sort of works most of the time. Unfortunately, on a bad day it doesn’t work at all. In a major incident on a vessel out at sea, providing help in anyway becomes almost impossible due to the lack of information being globally available about what is really on any given vessel.
Today, every container vessel operator is in some sort of partnership with another vessel operator. So, while a shipper may book cargo to go from, say, Rotterdam to Singapore with company A, the cargo may go on a vessel belonging to company B and then relay to company C’s ship before arriving at its final destination.
With a few exceptions, water carriers do not capture what hazardous cargo their partners have put on any of their vessels in their global computer systems. While many carriers require that all hazardous cargo be pre-cleared and, indeed, maintain centralised offices for doing the pre-clearance, the process is done via email rather than with a software program that could automatically load the information into their systems.
In the age of the internet, it is surprising to learn that in most cases the only people who know exactly what is on the vessel and where it is stowed are the vessel crew and the vessel operator’s staff at the load port. The local vessel operations personnel may know what is on the ship when it arrives and what cargo they will load and unload. But the vessel operator’s shoreside personnel in other locations have no visibility as to what’s on one of their ships except for their own cargo.
Here are a couple of scenarios that can take place at a loading port. In the first port the terminal operator and the stevedore are two different companies. The steamship lines individually provide a hard copy of their DCM to the stevedoring company. Once the cargo is loaded to a vessel, an updated DCM with the stow locations of all the containers is provided by the stevedoring company to the vessel and to the local vessel operator’s personnel. Both of these are paper documents.
At another port, the terminal operator and the stevedoring company are the same. In this case, the steamship lines do a very minimal electronic data interchange (EDI) with the terminal operator prior to the cutoff date for a particular ship. It is by no means a full disclosure of the hazardous information found on the ‘Shipper’s Declaration of Dangerous Goods’ - only the hazard class and the UN number for a particular freight container are transmitted. When the trucker shows up with the freight container the terminal operator will update its system based on the paperwork the trucker has. Once the cargo is loaded to a vessel the terminal operator produces a DCM for the vessel and the local vessel operator’s staff. Once again, these are paper documents.
So how does the next port know what is coming at them? Depending on the time it takes the vessel to get to the next port, the DCM may be scanned and sent via email or copied and pouched overnight. This may not take place for 24 to 48 hours after the vessel has sailed, especially if the next port is several days journey for the ship.
Standards for the use of EDI to transmit hazardous information have been around for more than 15 years. However, due to the cost of implementing and maintaining an EDI program, most carriers have not updated their systems to send or receive information to or from their partners about what hazardous cargo is going on anyone’s vessel.
The cost of the incident described at the start of this article vastly outweighed the cost of the IT work it would take to develop a system that would allow the vessel operator full transparency of that is on its vessels. Too bad management didn’t look at it that way - they must have figured “it will never happen to us”. Wrong, maybe not today, but it will happen, the odds are against you, Mr Vessel Operator.
Haldis Fearn is a consultant and trainer with more than 25 years experience in the transport of dangerous goods, primarily with ocean shipping lines. Go to www.hmf2.com for more information.