Seals Provide Low-cost Front-line Defense

Dec. 1, 2001
CARGO SEALS provide a most cost-effective means of boosting security for shipments of hazardous materials and foodgrade products. Seals won't stop a tank

CARGO SEALS provide a most cost-effective means of boosting security for shipments of hazardous materials and foodgrade products. Seals won't stop a tank trailer or tank container from being hijacked, but they can provide a clear indication of tampering.

The seal doesn't have to be very expensive or sophisticated, but it must be part of a well-organized chain-of-custody process to be fully effective. Most importantly, seals must have a unique identifier or serial number. This can be in the form of numerals or a bar code. Next, the identifier must be recorded on bills of lading or other relevant documents, and all of the participants in the transportation process must be aware of it.

“Seals definitely provide a quick and easy way to raise our security level,” says Butch Bingham, president of Bulkmatic Transport Company. “We don't need anything fancy, but we do need the involvement of shippers, receivers, and others who handle our equipment.”

Some industry experts say the best policy is to keep seals on a tank trailer at all times, even when it is empty. Anytime a seal is removed, it should be replaced with another, and the new number must be recorded.

Serial numbers must be verified when seals are replaced, but that's not all. Seals must be inspected before loading and at the time of delivery to determine whether tampering might have occurred.

Commercial cleaning racks will have to be a part of any seal program. Fleets must decide whether wash rack workers or the driver will reseal a cargo tank after it has been cleaned.

Seal Numbers

Determining how many seals are needed on a shipment may take some trial and error. Some companies became overzealous in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Jerry Peck, transportation marketing manager at E J Brooks Company, recounts an instance in which a rail hoppercar arrived at the customer location with no less than 28 seals.

“That's a lot of seals, he says. “Generally, we see around 18 seals on a hoppercar that is fully sealed up. In the past, cargo seals were a secondary concern. People now realize that even the cheapest seal is better than nothing.”

A typical DOT407 single-compartment chemical trailer probably would need seals in 10 locations including the following: discharge outlet, domelid, cleanout caps, and hose tubes. Vapor recovery hardware that will become much more common on chemical trailers in the future may need to be sealed, both at the top and bottom of the trailer. Pumps, blowers, and compressors (whether on the trailer or tractor) should be sealed.

Dry bulk trailers can be especially challenging because they have so many points of entry. Piping from the front to the rear of a bulker will have to be addressed, along with domelids and hoppers. Filters and vacuum/pneumatic hardware may need seals.

Plastic seals are among the most widely used for domestic US shipments of chemicals and edibles. Cost is the main reason for the preference. Depending on quantity and features, the typical plastic seal will cost anywhere from five cents to 20 cents.

A big concern in the industry is that it is relatively easy for someone to remove many of these seals and put them back into place without any visible indication that tampering occurred. Tamper-evident seals must be used to ensure an adequate level of security.

“A kid with a pair of scissors can get through the cheap seals,” says Brian Thum, PCI-Fortris Inc. “The most important thing is to know if tampering has occurred. We're adding a number of detection characteristics to certain products. For instance, we offer seals with laser markings that can't be scratched off and are very difficult to duplicate.”

Higher Security

Cable seals may gain ground over the coming months, because some tank fleet executives believe they offer a higher level of security. “It's very difficult to reattach a cable seal once it has been removed,” Peck says. “In a case of cargo tampering, a terrorist would need inside assistance.”

Depending on the type of cable, this type of seal can be harder to remove. Increased security comes with a price, though. Cable seals start at around 50 cents each.

Some of the most robust cargo sealing devices are bolt seals, which are most widely used on international containerized shipments. Typical price for these seals is $1.50 and up.

Should greater security be required, carriers and shippers can turn to digital seals. Most of these high-tech devices are reusable and can be programmed with some detailed shipment information in addition to a customer-specific electronic code. The cost just for the seal device is likely to be in the $20 to $50 range.

Shippers using digital seals include the US military, which has specified the SmartSeal system from Savi Technology Inc. Once a vehicle is secured, the SmartSeal device can electronically detect and report any tampering activity, enabling continuous monitoring of the security status of the shipment. SmartSeal's design makes it virtually impossible to counterfeit or circumvent, and its encrypted communications protocol ensures that its RFID signals cannot be replicated.