By ERIC KULISCH
Forty-seven House members of the PORTS Caucus recently sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson urging him to address 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 them 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. 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 [of Homeland Security], creates a ripple effect throughout our economy and supply chain,” the lawmakers said. Most new inspectors were deployed to airports and land borders to reduce wait times, Todd Owen, CBP’s executive assistant commissioner for field operations, told American Shipper. CBP’s workforce staffing model at the time indicated a need for 2,624 additional officers to keep all checkpoints fully staffed during regular operating hours. Use of new technologies and 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.
By recently adjusting settings on radiation portal monitors CBP has been able to significantly reduce nuisance alarms and the need for personnel to follow up with secondary checks to make sure shipments are 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 Obama administration budget documents. As of early 2015, 88 officers were redirected to other law enforcement duties because of revised RPM settings. Another gain in efficiency is expected from automation of user fee collection to reduce wait-times for commercial trucks.
A study at the Buffalo port of entry, forexample, found that officers spent 1,700 hours last year collecting cash. An automated payment system could result in a potential 6.5 percent decrease in processing times and a 5.5 percent increase in throughput at Buffalo alone.
In June, CBP began a one-year pilot program at three land crossings whereby truckers can pay the user fee only online (and soon with a smartphone). Trucks are identified as having paid through a windshield decal that contains a radio frequency identification chip.
Other business transformation initiatives that enable CBP to save money and shift personnel to priority areas include use of automated kiosks and mobile phones for passport control in airports, remotely reading RFID-enabled documents like passports and driver’s licenses at land crossings, issuing mobile devices to agriculture specialists, trusted trade and traveler programs, and ongoing development of biometrics. Many port authorities are taking advantage of a new program approved by Congress that allows public-private organizations to pay the overtime costs of CBP personnel when additional screening hours are necessary. The object is to let communities help address bottlenecks at transportation hubs and minimize impact to the local economy.
As of February, CBP has agreements with 29 entities at 27 ports of entry for reimbursable services. CBP provided almost 68,000 hours of service at the request of local partners, accounting for the processing of more than 1.65 million travelers and more than 250,000 personal and commercial vehicles. The House lawmakers said letting communities reimburse CBP for customs, agricultural processing, security inspections and immigration-related services provides temporary flexibility for reducing congestion. “The need for a permanent solution remains,”
they said. In April, the House unanimously passed legislation to help improve CBP’s operational capacity. Language was also included in the fiscal year 2017 Defense authorization bill to enable CBP to expedite hiring 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 North America goes through ports. DHS has requested Congress increase immigration and customs user fees in an effort to recover more of the costs associated with providing services. The department wants to increase the fee for stationing CBP inspectors at express consignment facilities, for example, by 36 cents and the immigration inspection fee for international travelers by $2.