Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What Happens If My Hands Alarm During an Explosives Trace Detection Test (And other questions answered)

Many shooters and others who work around chemicals or munitions have questions about flying since the recent announcement that TSA has begun randomly swabbing hands for Explosives Trace Detection tests (ETD). We’re also aware of all of the traveling military, firefighters and law enforcement personnel who are around various accelerants and munitions on a daily basis. In fact, we’re aware of all of the different people whose professions and hobbies might cause them to alarm the ETD machine because we’ve been using this technology for years. One thing to understand right away is that TSA has to balance security with convenience. Part of our mission is to keep the flying public safe, and being safe isn’t always convenient. No matter how much of an expert you are at traveling, it’s not guaranteed that you won’t be stopped for additional screening of some sort.

TSA has been using this technology since we started federalizing the airports in 2002. We are well aware that there are occasionally false positives and other cases where people who work around munitions and chemicals will alarm the machines .

From reading responses on our blog and elsewhere, it’s almost as if people think that if they alarm during an ETD test, a net is going to drop from the ceiling and federal agents will start rapelling down the walls. Not so… we have long had procedures in place that help us mitigate real threats while clearing people who pose no threat to travel.

Also, people have been doing some research and have learned that ETD machines can detect narcotics. While this is true, TSA does not calibrate our machines to test for narcotics. Narcotics will not cause catastrophic damage to a plane, so we’re not searching for them. However, we do stumble upon them while searching for other things. Wherever you can hide drugs, you can hide bombs, so we may end up accidentally finding your stash.

I’ve heard on the radio and read on Twitter that some think we’re taking DNA samples with these swabs and testing for H1N1. ETD machines cannot analyze DNA or test for H1N1.

When used to test hands, ETD swabs are not reused on other passengers. (See above photo for examples of what ETD swabs look like)

And the final question I’d like to answer is what happens if you refuse the ETD swab? If you refuse the ETD Swab, you will be referred to additional screening, which depending upon the results may result in a referral to a law enforcement officer.
Blogger Bob
TSA Blog Team

Monday, February 22, 2010

Four Year Old Boy In Philly Told To Remove Leg Braces

You may have heard about the story of the four year old in Philly who was told to remove his leg braces.

The account goes back to March 2009, but when PHL Federal Security Director (FSD) Robert Ellis learned about it last week, he called the father of the boy immediately. There was no formal report of the incident on file with details, but regardless, Mr. Ellis apologized for any inconvenience the boy and his family may have had to go through.

At TSA, we have a few ways to report any problems you have as soon as it occurs. First, ask for a supervisor immediately. This way, TSA management can look into resolving the issue and any personnel can be identified and retrained as needed. If you choose not to report the incident at the airport, or you feel your incident didn’t receive the attention it should have, you have other options:

Got Feedback – Allows you to contact the Customer Support Manager for the airport you traveled through via e-mail.

TSA Contact Center – You can reach the Contact Center via e-mail, mail or phone. You can find Contact Center info here.

When it comes to screening passengers with disabilities, our officers receive Passengers with Disabilities (PWD) training upon being hired and are required to take annual PWD courses.

From Travelers with Disabilities and Medical Conditions:

In order to achieve that goal, TSA has established a program for screening of persons with disabilities and their associated equipment, mobility aids, and devices. Our program covers all categories of disabilities (mobility, hearing, visual, and hidden). As part of that program, we established a coalition of over 70 disability-related groups and organizations to help us understand the concerns of persons with disabilities and medical conditions. These groups have assisted TSA with integrating the unique needs of persons with disabilities into our airport operations.

Note: In order to keep the flying public safe, our procedures require individuals to undergo thorough screening and there are some rare instances when leg braces may need to be removed. However, this would happen while the passenger was seated and not before they walked through the metal detector.

Blogger Bob
TSA Blog Team

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Explosive Trace Detection Usage Expanded: Give Us A Hand

What’s the biggest threat to an airplane? A knife? A pistol? While these items can be dangerous, with hardened cockpit doors installed after 9/11, an improvised explosive device poses the biggest threat to aviation security today.

I’ve talked about using Advanced Imaging Technologies to detect non-metallic and metallic threats, including IEDs already, but today I wanted to talk about another technology we have to detect explosives hidden on people and in bags.

While going through checkpoints, you might have seen officers using little white swabs at TSA checkpoints at one point or another. In case you had no idea what our officers were doing, they were conducting state of the art Explosives Trace Detection (ETD) tests. And all along you thought they were giving your items a complimentary cleaning…

ETD tests are used in checkpoint, checked baggage, and cargo environments. We swab things such as laptops, shoes, film, cell phones, bags, wheelchairs, hands, casts - you name it. Certain procedures call for an ETD test.

Basically, our officers run the white swab over the area in question to collect a trace sample. They then place the swab in the ETD machinery which analyzes the sample for extremely small traces of explosives. The test takes a matter of seconds.

In the TSA of the past, our ETD machines were anchored to certain checkpoints or baggage areas. This is a mobile technology and we’re now going to take advantage of that luxury.

Recently, we tested ETD technology outside its regular use at checkpoints and checked baggage areas, and confirmed its ability to be used in other areas of the airport like the gate to check for explosives residue on passengers. Why the move? Since the attempted attack on 12/25, we looked at ways to immediately strengthen security using existing technology and procedures in different ways. ETD is quick, good for security and cost efficient.

Sure, we’re improving the checkpoints with technology such as Advanced Imaging Technology machines, but we currently have ETD machines at every checkpoint in the country and this new procedure will help us beef up security. Explosive Trace Detection is a highly effective, proven technology.

So as you travel, you might be asked for a swab of your hands at the checkpoint or gate. It’s painless and quick. The swabs are disposed of after each use and will not be used on more than one person.

This is another way we can help keep the flying public safe from attempted attacks such as the one on 12/25.

For additional reading, check out these new articles on our expanded use of ETD technology: 

CNN: TSA to swab airline passengers' hands in search for explosives 

USA Today: TSA takes explosives screening to fliers 


Bob Burns
TSA Blog Team

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bollywood Confidential

A rumor is going around that Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan had an Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) image of himself leaked by UK Security officers at Heathrow. This rumor, though juicy, is unfounded.

TSA reached out to the UK's Department for Transport (DFT) and learned that, just like advanced imaging technology machines in U.S. airports, they do not have printers or the ability to store images in the airport setting.

Additionally, DFT pointed TSA to the source of the rumor: an interview with BBCs Jonathan Ross. Though he doesn't explicitly say that he's joking, we can confirm in all seriousness that the machines don't do what he jokingly describes.


Blogger Bob
TSA Blog Team

Thursday, February 4, 2010

TSA Haiti Evacuation Effort: A Federal Security Director's Perspective

TSA has been lending a helpful hand in the evacuation efforts in Haiti. Our Office of Global Strategies (OGS) deployed a go team to Haiti to help support DHS with the evacuation. OGS also sent a go team to Santo Domingo to assist with departing U.S. evacuees. Also, TSA Team Sanford (SFB) transitioned to a 24 hour operation to accommodate the incoming evacuees.

John Daly is the Federal Security Director (FSD) for the Sanford International Airport (SFB). SFB is a hub for the Haiti evacuation efforts and we asked if he’d like to be a guest blogger and tell us a little about the operation. ~ Blogger Bob

The month of January is normally a time for TSA employees at Orlando/Sanford International Airport (SFB) to get caught up on training and to take some needed time off. The first month of 2010 has proven to be a very different experience. SFB has served as a hub of the Haiti evacuation efforts in Central Florida, turning an airport that normally shuts down security operations at around 8 p.m. into an airport that has been running 24/7 operations since January 16th. In fact, more than 50% of the Haiti evacuees have entered the U.S. in Sanford, FL. The most challenging part has been the nature of the flight arrivals. At times, multiple flights would arrive nearly simultaneously at SFB and then there were long periods of waiting for the next flights. Spikes of activity followed by periods of calm…

Initially augmented by employees from Orlando International Airport (MCO), SFB and MCO TSA employees provided additional layers of security throughout the airport in support of the humanitarian relief efforts. Transportation Security Officers provided security around the C-17 military aircraft as Haiti evacuees deplaned and walked the 150 yards to the CBP Federal Inspection Station (FIS), often stepping in on their own initiative to assist persons with disability, help families with small children or to lend a hand to weary people who just needed a caring arm to hold onto as they walked. Six TSA Creole speakers from MCO helped CBP efficiently process the evacuees through customs and immigration procedures.

All of the evacuees were processed by CBP at the Federal Inspection Station, followed by the American Red Cross and FL Dept of Children and Families (DCF) in part of the “sterile area“ of the airport that was sectioned off specifically for this mission. TSOs secured the perimeter of that area for security purposes. After processing, most evacuees were bused from Sanford to Orlando International Airport to catch connecting flights to other parts of the country where they would be met by friends or family. Our folks demonstrated innovation in helping the airport authority develop and build a wooden baggage chute to expedite the moving of personal bags from the airport terminal down to the buses. TSA employees screened the buses for any security issues on the tarmac and helped the evacuees board the buses with the few belongings they could carry. You could see the relief in the faces of the evacuees as they began to feel comfortable knowing that they would be with friends or family soon.

Watching the operation unfold from the beginning, I was impressed with the tremendous coordination and support provided by all of the players involved at the local, state and Federal level. Sanford Airport Authority, Seminole County first responders /emergency managers, TSA, CBP, USAF, FL Dept of Children and Families, American Red Cross and many other agencies quickly pulled together to create one of the most effective Emergency Operations Centers I’ve ever observed in my 24+ year career in public service and incident management. The quick sharing of information, tremendous teamwork and seamless interoperability was great to see and has clearly been critical to the success of the entire operation.

As the operation grew, TSA personnel from Tampa International Airport (TPA) deployed to MCO/SFB to provide much needed support by augmenting our MCO/SFB teams. Their weeklong commitment to assist proved critical to our success. Keep in mind that normal operations at SFB continued each day, with inbound and outbound commercial flights, in addition to the humanitarian relief efforts. Upon arrival of a 40-person team from the TSA National Deployment Force (NDF), the TPA folks headed back to their home airport. The NDF has helped us keep the operation running without skipping a beat. As the flow of evacuees begins to dwindle at Sanford, we will begin releasing the NDF resources.

Other locations in Florida and other states have begun receiving evacuees. We will start scaling back to normal operations at MCO/SFB soon. As I reflect back on the last 2-3 weeks, I swell with pride knowing that our TSA workforce had such a positive impact in this humanitarian effort. Our folks have demonstrated tremendous professionalism in maintaining security while at the same time showing heartfelt compassion for those in need. The stamina of our team was impressive. It has truly been an honor and privilege for those of us at TSA Team Orlando to be part of such a significant event. I’m proud to say that our TSA team and all of those involved in the Haiti relief efforts at Sanford clearly demonstrated tremendous leadership and upheld our TSA core values of Integrity, Innovation and Team Spirit.

John Daly, Federal Security Director (SFB)

Guest TSA Blogger

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Orlando Officer Arrested

I was sickened to hear about a former TSA staffer in Orlando who was recently arrested for lewd and lascivious conduct.

TSA takes allegations such as these very seriously and steps were taken to terminate this employee. Yesterday, the employee resigned.

TSA uses background screening and perpetual vetting to keep those with criminal records out of our workforce, but background checks are not a crystal ball and cannot predict what a person will do in the future.

Our officers are deeply saddened and disgusted that someone who wore the uniform could commit such an unspeakable act. TSA holds the highest standards for our workforce and this individual's actions do not reflect on the more than 50,000 men and women who work every day to keep the traveling public safe.

Blogger Bob
TSA Blog Team