The Decision to Stop Using Security Guards


Published Jun 26, 2015 3:54 PM by Wendy Laursen

It’s a subject that ship managers are reticent to talk about, but many are now thinking about when they will stop using security guards on their ships travelling high risk Somali waters.

“Shipping companies are paying a lot of money to have armed guards on board their ships when there hasn’t been any successful attacks for a couple of years now,” says Daren Knight, managing director of specialist security company Knight Associates Ltd.

“The feedback I get from clients is that although most are now looking at an exit strategy from using armed guards, their issue is with finding an effective defence alternative.”

Armed guards are just one single layer of defence amongst many other layers, says Knight, but the current piracy situation in South East Asia is creating a critical problem for seafarer safety. “In South East Asia, many crews are transiting with their fingers crossed. At present, a ship might pass through the designated High Risk Area affected by Somali-based piracy with their guards and other best management practice measures in place, but they then disembark their security guards in Sri Lanka before heading in to Asian waters unprotected.

“In South East Asia, pirates know they can get away with attacks because there is no coordinated response and vessels are being pretty much undefended,” says Knight.

Piracy in Asia usually involves cargo theft for the black market in fuel or robbery of cash, personal items and equipment. The situation in the South China Sea is therefore vastly different to the situation in the Gulf of Aden where heavily armed pirates board vessels in open seas with the intention of taking the ship and its crew hostage for ransom payments.

It is important to distinguish between armed robbery and piracy when reporting incidents in South East Asia waters, says the Singapore Shipping Association (SSA), which has commissioned a study to determine the scale of threat posed to seafarers in the area.

The findings reveal that in the first quarter of this year the vast majority of incidents in Asia fall under the category of armed robbery (which is within the territorial waters and under the jurisdiction of the sovereign state) not piracy (which is on the high seas). The distinction determines whether a merchant vessel can seek protection from the navy/coast guard of the littoral state or from the navy/coastguard of the vessel’s flag of registry.

SSA says that recent reports of pirate attacks show it is more likely to have been armed robbery and targeted at specific vessel types, particularly when in port or at anchor. SSA stresses that, with an estimated 50,000-90,000 vessels transiting the Straits of Malacca and Singapore each year and further numbers sailing around the South East Asia and South China seas, it can be calculated that the likelihood of a merchant vessel, which exercises high vigilance and conducts anti-boarding watch, being attacked is between 0.012 and 0.07 percent.

For Knight the distinction between piracy and robbery is not as simple as a definition of where an incident occurs. “These are criminals of opportunity. They will take what they can, where the can, when they can.”

Knight’s aim is to empower fleet operators with cost-effective integrated policy, procedural and physical defence alternatives to armed guards. He acknowledges that piracy incidents are rare, but he says that the consequences can be serious. He says that few ships have suitable medical supplies and few designated medical officers are appropriately trained to deal with the sort of traumatic injuries that can be inflicted by pirates, including gunshot and blast wounds. 

If the crew have followed procedures, most would be in a safe place on board in the event of a pirate attack. Therefore any injuries sustained are most likely to be suffered by those few remaining on the bridge. To perform first aid to stop a major bleeding wound, he says, crew members would first have to access the dressings from several first aid kits scattered around the ship. A victim may however only have a few minutes before such a wound could prove fatal. 
SSA is encouraging captains and seafarers to ensure they comply with recognised methods to counter possible boarding when traversing South East Asian waters and advises that, if boarded, captains should put the well-being of their crew first while, at the same time, fully complying with the standing instructions of their respective companies.