Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What It Takes to be a Transportation Security Officer

Many people at TSA are checking out our blog, from security officers on the front line to management here at TSA’s headquarters. Today, we received a post from Mo McGowan, who heads up aviation security operations at TSA:

Since there have been hundreds of comments about our Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) on this blog ranging from "they're great" to "they stink," I thought it might be interesting to take an inside look into what it takes to be an officer and what they do.

So what does it take to be hired as an officer? Applicants are tested before they’re hired, and have quite a bit of required training afterward. Applicants for “screening” jobs take a series of image interpretation tests before they are ever offered a job. (About one in 20 applicants actually becomes an officer.) Even after they’ve been on the job, TSA requires ongoing training throughout the year.

Once hired, officers:
- Participate in more than 120 hours of classroom and on-the-job training before they ever screen a person or a bag;
- Undergo a series of tests before receiving a work assignment;
- Complete even more training if they are going to screen both passengers and baggage (More than half of our officers do this); and
- Complete an annual certification process that includes more written tests, image interpretation tests, and a third party evaluation.

So training is a regular, important part of an officer’s job.

Seven times every day, every checkpoint in the U.S. is tested with ‘fake’ threats to ensure that our officers are on alert. Most of these fake items are very difficult to identify on the computer screen, and most of these items are detected. Unfortunately, we’re all most likely to hear about the few prohibited items that pass through undetected rather than the thousands of items that are identified at the checkpoint.

On a typical day in the U.S., security officers find two guns and around 2,800 knives and blades (of varying sizes) on passengers and in carry-on bags. Those are the most commonly discovered prohibited items, but it’s hard to imagine how many other potential threats are identified on a daily basis.

We at TSA don’t want anything to happen ‘on our watch.’ This means a lot to me when my family flies, or when I fly to see my grandkids. It means that officers want to be thorough even though it might be inconvenient for us sometimes. It means that they take our safety, security, and the threat seriously, and try their best to prevent and deter the individuals who wish to do us harm.

At TSA, we think about one passenger at a time, two million times a day.