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American Shipper

U.S. Customs seaport staffing shortage draws congressional scrutiny

House lawmakers and port authorities want the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to allocate more new personnel to ports, allowing for cargo and cruise passengers to be cleared faster for entry.

   Forty-seven members of the PORTS Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives last week sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson urging him to address staffing shortages of Customs officers at seaports, which they said is slowing processing of cruise passengers and freight.
   Congress in 2014 appropriated money enabling Customs and Border Protection to hire 2,000 field officers over two years to process cargo and travelers at ports of entry, but fewer than 20 of the new officers were assigned to seaports.
   “We cannot let this disproportionate approach to security continue. Our nation’s seaports handle more than 11 million maritime containers and over 11 million international passengers each year,” the lawmakers said. “Annual increases in volume and periodic surges in ship traffic have continually led to repeated dock-side delays in inspecting and clearing cargo. This, paired with a muted response from the Department, creates a ripple effect throughout our economy and supply chain.”
   Most of the new inspectors were deployed to airports and land borders to reduce wait times, Todd Owen, the executive assistant commissioner for field operations, told American Shipper Thursday after testifying before a House panel about the agency’s role ensuring port security.
   At the time it received the funding for extra personnel, CBP’s workforce staffing model indicated a need for 2,624 additional officers to keep all lanes and checkpoints fully staffed during regular operating hours. Use of new technologies and implementation of operational efficiencies since then have reduced the manpower need to 2,107 individuals, with seaports facing a shortage of about 500 officers, Owen said. The staffing gap is 623 for agriculture specialists that check shipments, conveyances and wood pallets for dangerous pests from other countries, he said.
   By recently adjusting settings on radiation portal monitor CBP has been able to significantly reduce nuisance alarms and the need for as many personnel to follow up with secondary checks to make sure the shipment is legitimate. The drive-through radiation detection machines are used to make sure no radiological device is smuggled into the country via ocean containers or trucks entering from Canada and Mexico. RPMs are at the exit gates of virtually all seaports, as well as in port areas where containers are loaded on trains. Natural occurring radiation in many commodities can set off the machines.
   The revised tolerance settings reduced overall alarms by 78 percent in fiscal year 2015, or by 231,124 alarms, saving almost 58,000 hours in traffic delays and 115,562 hours in CBP officer time for alarm adjudication, according to the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2017 Homeland Security budget request. As of early 2015, 88 officers were redirected to other law enforcement duties because of the revised RPM settings.
   Another gain in efficiency is expected from automation of user fee collection to reduce wait times for commercial trucks. Motor carriers that do not purchase an annual user fee decal must pay $13.05 per crossing, but the manual collection of money increases wait times at checkpoints. A study at the Buffalo port of entry, for example, found that officers spent 1,700 hours last year collecting cash, according to the budget document. An automated payment system could result in a potential 6.5 percent decrease in processing times and a 5.5 percent increase in throughput in Buffalo alone, it said.
   In June, CBP began a one-year pilot program at three land crossings, including Buffalo, whereby truckers can pay the user fee only online (and soon with a smartphone) and trucks will be identified as having paid through a windshield decal that contains a radio frequency identification chip.
   Other business transformation initiatives that enable CBP to realign personnel to priority areas include automated passport control kiosks in airports, a new system enabling travelers to use their mobile phones to enter passport information before entering the inspection line, Ready Lanes at land crossings where RFID-enabled documents like passports and driver’s licenses can be read remotely, ongoing development of biometrics and elimination of duplicative processes.
   Many seaport and airport authorities are taking advantage of a CBP program approved by Congress two years ago that allows public-private organizations to pay the overtime costs of CBP personnel when additional hours of screening are necessary. The object is to let communities help address bottlenecks at transportation hubs and minimize impact to the local economy.
   The House lawmakers said letting communities reimburse CBP for customs, agricultural processing, security inspections and immigration-related services provides flexibility for reducing congestion, but is not a cost that ports can afford to bear long term.
   “The need for a permanent solution remains,” they said.
   In April, the House unanimously passed the Border and Maritime Coordination Improvement Act to help improve the operational capacity of CBP. Language was also included in the fiscal year 2017 Defense Department authorization bill to enable CBP to expedite the hiring process for applicants with military backgrounds.
   The American Association of Port Authorities has also expressed concern about the manpower shortage at seaports, noting that 99 percent of U.S. trade outside of North America goes through ports.

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