Sunday, August 13, 2006

What To Do Next?

The latest terror threat that was uncovered in London last week has again shown just how reactionary and behind the curve the US is in regards to our airport security.

Speaking as someone that has worked in airport security since the TSA came into existence in 2002 (and no I do not work for the TSA), many of the latest news stories describe holes in our system that even though they are just now getting press, have actually existed from the beginning. One of the main problems when placing something under government control is that you add numerous layers of bureaucracy into the mix, and as being demonstrated lately, politics and airport security do not necessarily work well together.

The government has known about the possibility that liquid explosives could be used as the London terrorists were planning and security equipment manufacturers have had technology in the pipeline for several years to detect this threat but our current mentality of reacting only after someone tries to exploit a known hole instead of being proactive could have again resulted in the loss of 1000’s of lives. We got lucky this time but how long before that luck runs out resulting in a successful attempt?

Admittedly, the current liquid explosive detection equipment isn’t ready for use in an airport environment due to the time involved to properly screen passenger baggage and the costs of the equipment which at this point runs up to $250,000 per machine, but as has been shown in the past, our technological minds can overcome most limits if they have the resources to do it. But why isn’t the technology ready to implement? One reason can be summed up by the recent announcement that the Bush administration consistently tries to divert money away from the development of such technology.

If our government is so concerned about our safety, why is the administration trying to quietly funnel $6 million from developing better explosive detection technology? Why did they fail to spend $200 million that was available for research? Companies that specialize in manufacturing this type of detection equipment can not be expected to fully fund this type of research without government help or at least without the guarantee that they will have a market to sell the finished product, neither of which seems to be readily forthcoming from the Bush Administration. Why should these companies work to improve the technology when they are unsure that they will have a customer to purchase it when it is ready? It’s not like they can sell it to the masses at your local Best Buy.

The other issue revolving around the security of our airports involves the competence and training of the front lines of the process, the screeners manning the technology. A lot of the press lately involves these individuals and their ability to catch contraband before it makes it on to an aircraft. Much of it revolves around successful attempts by security consultants to smuggle bomb parts and other possible weapons through checkpoints and the somewhat questionable background of some of the screeners.

Many of these horror stories, while true do not always report on the whole story. I work alongside these people on an almost daily basis and seeing the hoops that they are forced to jump through makes it understandable as to why some of these events occur. The TSA sets forth certain policies and procedures that the screeners must follow that seem to change on almost a weekly basis making proper training an almost impossible task. Almost as soon as their personnel are trained on new procedures, they are completely changed.

Manning levels at many of the airports are nowhere near where they need to be to properly perform their duties making the process of screening even more difficult. Several of the airports I deal with are so short staffed that several of the screeners are required to work 7 days a week and the ability to hire replacements is hampered by the fact that at many of these airports, new hires are required to work part time with terrible pay and even worse schedules. At the larger airports, employee turnover is so high because of poor pay and working environment that having enough properly trained individuals on hand is difficult at best

The excuse by some as to why we do not have the technology in place to detect liquid explosives was because it was too expensive and that no one had as of yet tried to exploit that hole. Sounds a lot like the excuses being made after 9/11 to me. Our government needs to decide just how secure it wants our airports to be. Either we are committed to doing it properly by finding holes in the process and then investing in new technology to close those holes and then hire, train and maintain the required personnel levels needed to man that technology. If we do not make that commitment, we will continue to see cases like what happened in London, only one of these times it will be discovered after a successful attack instead of before one.

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