WINNIPEG, Ont. - The Free and Secure Trade (FAST) program may have been designed to speed up border crossings for low-risk shipments but becoming part of the program is proving to be anything but fast...
WINNIPEG, Ont. – The Free and Secure Trade (FAST) program may have been designed to speed up border crossings for low-risk shipments but becoming part of the program is proving to be anything but fast.
Drivers trying to get their FAST cards are finding that getting to a FAST application office during regular office hours is harder than expected.
That’s especially true in the prairies and the maritimes where FAST enrollment centres are non-existent, according to Lisa Jennings, the compliance officer for Bison Transport, headquartered in Winnipeg, Man.
“We’ve encouraged all of our drivers to apply for the FAST card,” says Jennings.
“But being a Winnipeg-based carrier, a large majority of our drivers are prairie-based. Without having an enrollment centre at one of the three major prairie ports we are finding the limited days and hours at the open enrollment centres very difficult to co-ordinate getting our drivers through.”
The three nearest U.S. border crossings are at Pembina, North Dakota, Portal, North Dakota and Sweetgrass, Montana, but they don’t have enrollment centres where drivers can complete the final stage of their application process by attending their interviews and picking up their FAST cards.
“Where were they thinking the prairie-based drivers would be crossing the border the majority of the time?” asks Jennings. “Having at least one of the three – Pembina, N.D., Sweetgrass, Mont. or Portal, N.D. – would lessen the large amount of drivers who are outstanding in their system.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, for their part, have promised more mid-west based enrollment centres by the end of December.
But in the meantime, prairie-based drivers will have to make do by scheduling and rescheduling their interviews at enrollment centres in Blaine, Washington or Port Huron, Michigan.
“And that’s problematic because the office hours don’t necessarily correspond to when a driver can actually make it in,” Jennings explained.
“Six hundred of our drivers have applied. About 150 of them have their approval letters from the States. But to date we only have about 60 who’ve been able to get their cards.”
Jennings says even drivers based in eastern Canada are having a hard time, thanks to restrictive office hours.
“We’re working with our planning and dispatching department to get them through but Monday to Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. difficult. We run 24/7, 364 days per year and our guys are usually going through the border ports with enrollment centers at 10 or 11 p.m. – when there’s no one there to help them.”
Jennings says that getting a driver a FAST card can basically “take a whole day.”
“I’ve had drivers who have scheduled interviews and then missed them. One of them had to because of traffic. Two others cancelled because their loads were late and they couldn’t get to the border on time.”
Stephan Bouderlique can sympathize.
He and his wife are independent team drivers, also based in Winnipeg, who applied for their U.S. FAST cards at the beginning of this year.
They both haul to the U.S. frequently, but Bouderlique’s wife was only able to make it in for an interview in Blaine, Washington recently.
“There were no other drivers around at 10 a.m.,” said Bouderlique, adding the process his wife went through was different than the process he had to go through when he managed to make it to his interview in Detroit.
“Which makes me wonder about the consistency,” he quips. According to Bouderlique, his wife wasn’t even interviewed when she picked up her card.
“All they did was take her fingerprints and her passport number. My interview was much more intensive – they really grilled me.”
“They’ve only opened up five offices where you can get this done,” says Bouderlique.
“But people in the Prairie provinces crossing at Emerson don’t frequent Detroit – and even if they do go there it’s pretty tough to hit their office hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. A truckers’ life isn’t 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. – it’s more of a 24-hour lifestyle.”
Bouderlique says it took both he and his wife six to seven weeks to get interview appointments they could actually attend.
Both he and his wife were forced to cancel.
“I had to cancel twice. Once was because of traffic. The other time was because I arrived at the enrollment office at 4 a.m. and I would have had to wait five hours for my appointment. That’s doesn’t really work well into your running time.”
Maritime drivers and carriers also have problems when it comes to FAST enrollment.
Like their western counterparts, they too are far from existing enrollment centres.
“Some of our guys go through Detroit during regular office hours,” said Stephen Lynch, one of three dispatchers for Merks Farms Transport.
But Lynch laughed when asked whether his drivers would be able to make appointments for their final interviews.
“How many days ahead do they have to make them?” he joked.
“We’ll do it when we have to, but they’re going to have to make getting FAST cards a lot easier if they want this to happen.”
Right now, says Lynch, U.S. Homeland Security is “just blowing smoke.”
Ron Lennox, vice president, regulatory affairs for the Canadian Trucking Alliance, admits there are several obstacles making FAST accreditation difficult for drivers.
“At the outset of the program it was taking far too long to process applications,” admits Lennox.
“While I still hear the odd report about lengthy waits, the last I heard from Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA) was that it was taking about four weeks, on average, to respond to a driver application.”
(Driver applications must be processed through both U.S. and Canadian Customs.)
The dearth of enrollment centres where drivers can go for their interviews is another problem, Lennox confirms, especially for drivers and companies located not only in the prairies, but also in the maritimes.
“There remain only five processing centres for drivers – none on the Prairies, and none east of Montreal. A plan has been put in place to double the number by the end of the year…this should help.”
As for open office hours, Lennox says some enrollment centres may extend their office hours or operate on weekends, or even adopt a walk-in policy.
Be that as it may, a walk-in policy has yet to be adopted at U.S. enrollment centres, at least according to U.S. Customs officials.
To make matters even worse, open hours and days of operation are spotty, with only one centre (Blaine, Wash.) actually open five days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. according to U.S. Customs.
And drivers must make an appointment in advance.
The Fort Erie enrollment centre hours are slightly better – open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but by appointment only, according to Canadian Customs officials.
Open hours can be extended, however, for carriers willing to send their drivers in groups, said CCRA spokeswoman Katherine de Vos.
“If a carrier was willing to send a group of drivers to interview all at once, then we might look at opening the centre at a special time, for example from midnight to 2 a.m.,” said de Vos.
The news met with hoots of derision from carrier compliance officers, all of whom pointed out that carriers do not care to park the trucks of a group of their drivers all at the same time.
“Who’s able to do that?” quipped Dave Skater, safety and compliance manager for Brian Kurtz Trucking, based in Breslau, Ont.
Skater expects even his Ontario-based drivers to have trouble making it to their appointments.
Drivers are subject to all kinds of circumstances that make arriving on time for an appointment at any time problematic, admits Lennox.
“Drivers on tight schedules, who may have been delayed at the border, may be reluctant to park their rigs to go through this final processing stage,” he says.
Lennox thinks drivers will be more likely to pick up their cards when FAST traffic and the number of border crossings using FAST lanes increases.
“For some reason, many drivers who have applied, and have passed the initial screening, have been slow to pick up their cards. Provincial assoc
iations and CCRA/CBP have been appealing to the drivers…even making phone calls, in some cases. Only thing I can figure is that there is still not a lot of FAST traffic, so some drivers don’t see the pressing need,” says Lennox.
Skater agrees, but he adds many drivers are reluctant to apply for their FAST cards because they feel their rights are being violated.
“They resent getting their fingerprints taken,” he says. “They don’t understand why they should have to go through this process.”
Shippers feel the same, according to Skater.
“And that’s a problem. We’re on our way to being FAST accredited, but we’re an LTL carrier.
“If we have FAST driver and FAST carrier accreditation, and we still have shippers who aren’t FAST-accredited, it’s not going to mean a thing.”
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