Understanding Ship Security Levels: What Happens at Each Stage?

by | Last updated Dec 19, 2023 | Maritime Security | 0 comments

ISPS Code and ship security levels are probably two topics that stuck with me when I was still in a maritime college, perhaps because I witnessed the 9/11 bombings on TV and the consequences that followed.

So when I got on board, adjusting and implementing the theoretical knowledge in my arsenal wasn’t hard. Not that I have a deep-seated desire to become a “security guard” (though probably, who knows, lol), but I understood the importance of being vigilant.

Let’s discuss the different security levels and the additional measures we use when escalating to a higher MARSEC level.

Key Takeaways

  • The ISPS Code provides a maritime security framework with 3 escalating ship security levels to address threats.
  • Security Level 1 has minimum protective measures, Level 2 heightens precautions, and Level 3 denotes emergency response to imminent danger.
  • While ISPS security levels are globally recognized, the United States employs the term “MARSEC” (Maritime Security) that mirrors the ISPS security levels.

What is ISPS Code?

The International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code is a set of measures aimed at enhancing the security of ships and port facilities.

It was developed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in response to the evolving threats to the maritime industry, particularly the risk of terrorism.

I’ve made a detailed article about the basics of maritime security and the ISPS Code that you should check out.

You can also find more about this topic in Chapter XI-2 of SOLAS.

The Three Levels of Ship Security

Security level means the qualification of the degree of risk that a security incident will be attempted or will occur.

Each security level corresponds to specific measures the ship and the port implemented. Typically, on board, the Master or the Ship Security Officer (SSO) declares the security level, often signaled by a corresponding sign displayed on the gangway.

Here are the three ship security levels used on board any type of merchant vessel, including passenger ships.

  • Ship Security Level 1:  Low Threat. Normal operating conditions. When the vessel operates in security level 1, the minimum appropriate protective security measures are maintained at all times (e.g. watches, patrols, visitors log).
  • Ship Security Level 2: Medium Threat. Heightened threat due to an announcement or intelligence of a non-specific (perceived) threat. Additional protective security measures are maintained for a period of time due to a heightened risk of security incidents.
  • Ship Security Level 3: High Threat. The highest threat level in response to an attack or official information of a specific threat. A security incident is probable or imminent, although identifying the specific target may not be possible.

Sometimes, you might hear about MARSEC levels 1, 2, and 3. These are the same as the ISPS security levels but are usually used in United States waters.

MARSEC refers to the U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Security Levels under the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA). We will be using the term interchangeably from now.

A tanker ship with low freeboard discharging on a flat jetty where the security watchman can view the vessel surroundings with ease.

Procedures During ISPS Security Level 1

Since this is your normal security level, no special measures are taken here except for the standard operating procedure on your everyday security jobs.

For Maritime Security Level 1, the Ship’s Security Officer shall:

  • Deploy a 24-hour gangway watch.
  • Strictly control access on and off the ship; verify the identity of all persons. 
  • Equip the Watch Officer and Engine Room Watch Officer with portable hand-held communication devices. 
  • Secure all identified access points. 
  • Search the baggage and all carry-on items before embarkation. 
  • Restrict access to critical ship areas to authorized personnel. 
  • Illuminate the main deck, all active access points, and the ship’s sides during periods of darkness. 
  • Verify the cargo and the ship’s stores against a manifest. 
  • Verify the integrity of the cargo and ship’s stores to ensure there has been no tampering. 
  • Keep unmanned areas, such as storerooms, locked. 
  • Secure all hatchways in controlled areas. 
  • Ensure rat guards are used.
  • Conduct spot checks to ensure security at access points. 

Procedures During ISPS Security Level 2

For heightened security level, additional measures will be taken, and in some cases, a triple watch system on deck is required.

You will also feel the tension rising at this level like we once experienced when loading in La Goulette, Tunisia.

  • All measures taken in Security Level 1.
  • Assign additional personnel to guard access points and restricted areas. 
  • Increase the frequency and detail of security patrols.
  • Shoreleave is not allowed.
  • Coordinate waterside boat patrols with the port facility. 
  • Limit the number of access points to one. 
  • Advise passengers and crew not to leave packages/baggage unattended. 
  • Check seals on containers and other cargo lockers. 
  • Provide security briefings to all crew and passengers on any specific threats and the need to be vigilant. 
  • Maintain close communications with security authorities. 
  • Restrict access to the bridge, engine room, and other restricted areas to specific crewmembers. 
  • Escort and strictly control all visitors. 
  • Augment bridge watches and lookouts.
  • Consider heaving up the gangway or accommodation ladder when no visitors are expected.
  • 100% checks of stores delivered (packaging, seals).
A crew equipped with safety harnesses and lifejackets securing the seaside accommodation ladder.

Procedures During ISPS Security Level 3

MARSEC Level 3 denotes the highest identified risk of a probable or imminent security threat. All ships and ports must enter an emergency response posture, enacting the most stringent protective, deterrent, and incident response measures to secure infrastructure and occupants.

When at Security Level 3, vessels and facility operators institute wide-reaching precautions

  • All measures taken in Security Level 2.
  • Restrict visitor access to official business; continuously escort all visitors. 
  • Post additional personnel to ensure the ship perimeter is constantly under surveillance. 
  • Intensify roving patrols, especially on deck. 
  • Heave up gangways, accommodation ladders, or pilot ladders to deck level. 
  • Postpone the delivery of all stores. 
  • Prohibit all vehicles, workboats, and barges from coming alongside while at port. 
  • Check all crew lockers and storage locations. 
  • Inspect the hull while in port and where practical. 
  • Dog and lock all doors/hatches from the inside to control access. 
  • Suspend cargo operations
  • Brief all personnel on potential threats, procedures, and the necessity to remain vigilant. 
  • Comply with any additional instructions/guidance from the Flag Administration / Contracting Government.
  • Get underway, if possible.

The ISPS Code creates a vital shield through collective action when intelligence confirms maritime assets face imminent danger.

From the normal conditions of MARSEC Level 1 to the imminent risks present in MARSEC Level 3, each stage demands precise adherence to security protocols.

May the winds be in your favor.



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