No longer do Americans and Canadians boast about living along the world's longest undefended border. Especially not politicians.
And despite yeoman efforts to stem the tide of illegal immigrants and illicit drugs dating to long before the 9/11 terrorist attacks left their tragic mark, no one pretends the U.S.-Mexican border is anywhere near airtight.
The distasteful but hard truth is our borders are being locked down. But thanks to the vagaries of a free society — in this case, three: the U.S., Canada and Mexico — and the free market they comprise, this border war is being fought largely on paper. So far.
Indeed, certification has become a key weapon in the United States campaign to deny dangerous cargo access to ports of entry, including land crossings. Our country is being aided in this effort by our northern and southern neighbors but it is what the U.S. government is doing that most impacts cross-border truckers.
The basic idea is the agency charged with keeping the U.S. safe at all entry points, the Dept. of Homeland Security's Customs & Border Protection (CBP) bureau, can't peer into every road vehicle.
What it can do is attempt to certify and approve carriers and their cargoes as “good to go” well in advance of their arrival at a U.S. port of entry.
This concept has been codified into reams of red tape and put into action. What is remarkable about all this is that truck fleets have already begun qualifying themselves under the program despite the heavy loads of paperwork required.
What is even more remarkable is these fleets are putting themselves through CBP's paces on an entirely voluntary basis. At least for now. No one knows whether or not the two CBP programs (C-TPAT and FAST, more on them in a moment) under which fleets are being certified for cross-border carriage will ever become mandatory.
For now, the twin government initiatives are being presented as voluntary programs that both enhance homeland security and speed the passage of freight across our international borders. Yet it should be noted that even if participation remains voluntary, shippers may require carriers to be certified.
Strip away all the hype about this far-reaching issue and determining what border protection means to your fleet is essentially a three-step process.
Step One is deciding if it is worth it for your fleet, at this juncture anyway, to seek C-TPAT and FAST certification.
Step Two is actually getting through the certification process, which involves lots of self-assessment and tons of paperwork at the very least.
Step Three is remaining on guard. For those operations that become certified, it means being aware of what may be asked next of fleets. For those not, at the very least it means staying prepared to get certified as quickly as possible if the law or customers demand it.
The very first thing to do is digest a couple of bowls of government-issue alphabet soup:
C-TPAT stands for “Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism,” a program CBP says will “develop, enhance and maintain effective security processes throughout the global supply chain.”
FAST is the acronym for “Free and Secure Trade,” a program that allows expedited release of qualifying commercial shipments for U.S./Canada and U.S/Mexico “partnering importers.” To take part in this — which is specifically meant to speed up cross-border freight movement — a carrier must first be C-TPAT-certified.
Pat Jones, a CBP press officer, explains the distinction this way: “FAST applies to shippers and importers and the drivers of the trucks they are using to move goods. C-TPAT applies to a much broader spectrum — any entity involved in international trade through any port of entry.”
Put the two programs together and, according to Jones, what you have is a method whereby “security for low-risk border transactions can be controlled by the shipper/carrier” so CBP can focus on high-risk vehicles and cargoes — those not certified or pre-cleared.
Deciding whether it's worth getting involved with these programs can be a tough call right now. That's because it's not yet required. And not every shipper will demand that you do.
The key problem is one of timing. If these programs become mandatory or if shipper demand for them starts accelerating, do you really want yours to be the last application to land in a bureaucratic in-box?
Chris Corrado, vp of customer support for Oakland, CA-based APL Logistics, says his firm has gone through the C-TPAT process and asked its “top 100” vendors to go through it too. “We recommended they do so because it is a voluntary process,” he explains. “But we did not ask the carriers we use for ‘one-offs’ to do so because we use them infrequently. We haven't ruled out using vendors who have not been C-TPAT-certified as of yet.”
According to president Herb Schmidt, Contract Freighters Inc. (CFI), getting certified is “complex due to the bureaucratic red tape.”
And while CFI has moved ahead on C-TPAT to help it move freight across the Canadian border, he says he doesn't see the payback yet. “Only one of our 2,850 cross-border customers has required we do this,” Schmidt points out. Among other costs, he says C-TPAT compliance costs CFI $50 per driver per year, which he regards as excessive, given truckload turnover rates.
“We have two persons on staff handling this intricate process for us,” Schmidt points out. “But I think security can be adequate with pre-existing border practices. The real issue for us is you can't cram more traffic over the border; it boils down to the bottlenecks you get on roadways.
“Ultimately,” Schmidt adds, “the shipper will pay for it. We will build the cost of border compliance into the cross-border rate as a cost of doing business.”STEP TWO:
Getting squared away with C-TPAT is really a two-fold process: certification and validation. The former is the more cumbersome and entails a self-assessment of security practices coupled with development and implementation of a company-specific security program designed around C-TPAT guidelines. (See accompanying “Case Study.”)
Believe it or not, the best place to start is at the government's own web site: http://cbp.gov/.
There you will find reams of material on how to attain C-TPAT certification and FAST clearance, including applications, fact sheets and FAQs.
What is even more surprising is a cottage industry of private firms has already sprung up to help companies complete these programs. For one example, Fort Lauderdale-based SCS Inc. (www.supplychainsecurity.biz) offers both online learning and compliance manuals.
APL Logistics' Corrado says the first part of the process, getting C-TPAT-certified, took a few months. “We took the template CBP offers at its web site and followed it very closely. The certification process let us review our security policies and procedures at all of our locations.
“We also helped our vendors out as much as we could in getting C-TPAT-certified,” he continues. “We told them the processes we used and tried to get them to replicate them so we'd all be on the same page.”
Corrado offers some practical advice on how to get through C-TPAT. “First, focus on the security processes that apply to your particular transportation niche. Then look at how those processes match up with those in the C-TPAT guidelines. Finally, look at your systems and the people they involve to determine what works and what doesn't.”
After receiving its certification in April '03, APL Logistics was validated by CBP through a series of inspections conducted in August and September '03.
During validation, CBP inspectors visit the sites of certified C-TPAT firms to physically verify that security programs in place match those described in the C-TPAT profile submitted for certification.STEP THREE:
What's ahead? More of the same, meaning paperwork, but expect technology to come more to the fore and, hopefully, make border crossings not just more secure but easier and quicker for everyone involved.
“Electronic manifesting for cross-border shipments is coming,” says CFI's Schmidt, “and it would be welcome as a means of speeding things up. Transferring data electronically would make it easier for CBP to track what would be reported as shipped.”
Margaret Irwin, international specialist for the American Trucking Assns., who says the whole point of these programs is to “not be a target,” reports that electronic truck manifests will be “piloted” by the end of November. “The trade act of '02 said this data must be transmitted electronically,” she notes, and now the government must start acting on those provisions.”
And Michael Dinning, division chief for the Dept. of Transportation's Volpe Research Center (Cambridge, MA), contends future government efforts at international borders will not overlook the high cost of enhanced security.
“A big issue is economics,” he admits. “A $75 to $130 electronic seal for a container or truck trailer may work well, but if no one buys it, it does no good.”
If you want to stay out front at the border, stay alert. Keep your eyes peeled — and you're pencil sharpened. You'll need them both.