TSA canines: These super-sniffers are safeguarding air travelers

Print
Email
|

by Jeff Goldblatt / KENS 5

Bio | Email | Follow: @jeff_goldblatt

kens5.com

Posted on May 4, 2013 at 1:13 AM

Updated Saturday, May 4 at 11:37 AM

Influenced by the failed terrorist strikes of so-called "Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid and "Underwear Bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) adjusted its use of canines to detect explosives, particularly at America's airports.

In addition to screening cargo and luggage, the TSA started placing additional canines in the field to detect explosives on passengers. The front line of that battle originates in San Antonio at Lackland Air Force Base, inside a one-of-a-kind facility that is also the world's largest.  It's called the TSA's Canine Training and Evaluation Section.

Although TSA Canine Handlers approach this training with the highest level of professionalism and seriousness, their explosive-sniffing dogs view this introduction to their "future careers" as a puppy playground of sorts.  

18-month-old Jagoda ran into a commuter rail car simulator with a feisty air of energy.  It was the first time training in any subway train for this Black Labrador.  His handler rewarded him with a shrill-sounding but comedic yell of commendation, every time the dog successfully found his training ball under a seat.

"Part of the dog's training is we have to get them exposed to the environment to make this a positive experience for the dogs, where he wants to come in here again," said David Dean, the TSA's lead canine trainer.

And in the mindset of the TSA, its National Canine Program comes flush with positives. In a span of roughly two years, funding for the program has doubled to $101 million. The program now fields more than 760 teams of dogs and officers, including TSA training instructor Diana Thomas.

"(The dogs) come to us a little green and they leave well-trained," Thomas said after working with a dog at a mock airport terminal that is modeled after San Antonio International.

The handlers and their canines complete a 10- to 12-week training program, with the officers partnered with breeds renowned for their work ethic such as Labradors and German shepherds.

In light of the ever-changing nature of security threats, the TSA decided in April 2011 to deploy more canine teams dedicated largely to passenger screening, called PSCs. The rationale: people give off distinct smells, and trained dogs can detect when people are carrying explosives or recently came in contact with them.

"I think the easiest way to break it down is... when we go into Burger King, we smell Burger King, we smell the hamburger, the whole thing,” Thomas said. “When a dog is smelling odor, he's smelling the onions and the ketchup and he's breaking all of those scents down."   

The TSA revealed that its PSC teams were pilot tested most recently at airports in Miami, Oklahoma City and at Dulles International in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

In the meantime, federal auditors with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) offered up some critical video as part of a report released in January on the effectiveness of these canines.

One video clip shows a passenger screening dog successfully tracking down an explosive odor in a black backpack during a training exercise and then leading its handler to the source of the odor.

But the same federal audit cast doubts on the success of these dogs, with another GAO video showing a dog missing its target, carrying an explosive training aid, and following another passenger.

Nevertheless, the TSA stands behind its four-legged friends, revealing it intends to deploy 120 of these passenger screening teams by the end of this fiscal year.

“They're just another layer of security," Thomas said. "You have the airport police. You have your checkpoint screening, You have canines, You have x-ray machines. It's many layers, and I think that's what's going to keep the bad guy on his toes."

Print
Email
|