Mass Transit Presents a Different Set of Requirements and Challenges, DHS IG Says

Although mass transit security commands greater domestic importance because of its vulnerability to terrorist attack, it also presents unique challenges for DHS not previously encountered with aviation security efforts. Consequently, these challenges have contributed to the lack of effective technology to detect improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in rail systems, said a newly released DHS Inspector General (IG) audit report.

According to the 2012 Annual Progress Report for the National Strategy for Transportation Systems, the transportation sector’s greatest risk is an IED attack on the mass transit mode because of its open access and the probability of mass casualties.

In addition to the problems in developing effective counter-IED technologies for the mass transit sector, the IG expressed concern that the “substantial” cuts in the budget of the Department of Homeland Security’s Science & Technology Directorate (S&T) and Explosives Division (EXD) over the past two years is impacting both counter-IED R&D as well as the grant program to help state and local transit authorities field technologies and resources.

The purpose of the IG’s audit was to evaluate how critical gaps in detecting improvised explosive device threats against mass transit systems are identified and prioritized for research and development, and how the S&T directorate coordinates research and development efforts with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to address these gaps. The scope of the IG’s review was limited to the transportation sector’s mass transit mode, specifically subway systems.

The IG recommended that “TSA formally document the newly implemented process for identifying capability gaps to ensure consistency in future gap reviews.”

According to the IG’s report, “S&T and TSA replaced previously established working groups and processes with smaller, more effective groups, such as the Surface Transportation Project Integrated Product Team, chartered in 2010, and the Research and Development Working Group, reorganized in 2011. Although these groups and their associated processes are relatively new, they are successful in identifying and consolidating old and new capability gaps. In addition, S&T and TSA are effectively collaborating in research and development efforts to address mass transit security needs.”

However, DHS’ IG said, “Although the new gap analysis process is based on the Transportation Sector-Specific Security Plan, TSA does not have written guidelines or directives to formalize the process.”

The National Infrastructure Protection Plan stipulated that TSA “coordinate preparedness activities among transportation sector partners to prevent, protect against, respond to and recover from all hazards that could affect US transportation systems,” the IG explained.

With collaboration and coordination of other government agencies and the surface transportation industry, TSA created the Surface Transportation Research and Development Working Group, whose mission is to gather and consolidate sector-directed research and development efforts from all transportation security partners. It also identifies security vulnerabilities, called “capability gaps,” and refers these identified security gaps to S&T for further review and possible initiation of research and development projects.

“Based on the gap analysis, S&T developed the Surface Transportation Program,” the IG said/ “The program provides the necessary framework to pursue TSA technologies to detect leave-behind improvised explosive device threats and to secure mass transit stations through layered detection technology.”

“Since the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001,” though, the IG report said, “DHS has concentrated its R&D efforts on technology for airline passenger screening, especially the detection of explosive devices.”

The IG pointed out that mass transit systems are especially attractive targets for terrorists because of inherent vulnerabilities like “open space architecture, restrictions on access, a lack of universal security screening and multiple stops and interchanges. In addition, unlike the largely standardized passenger aviation system, there is no common blueprint for transit system stations, track layout, train designs or fare collection systems.”

Continuing, the IG said “Although TSA has a stake in the development of technology to secure mass transit, the individual transit agencies are both the customers and the end-users for any new technology.” However, the IG’s report noted, “transit agencies’ operating budgets may or may not enable them to purchase and deploy new technology.”

The Transportation Security Grant Program (TSGP) provides grants for safety and security measures to augment transit agencies’ limited funds, but according to DHS officials, congressional funding for TSGP has been “drastically reduced” from more than $400 million in FY 2008 to $87.5 million in FY 2012. The EXD’s budget was reduced by 28 percent in fiscal year 2012.

And “With the high demand for grants and shrinking resources, fewer applications are funded,” the IG stated, pointing out that “transit agencies look for affordability and a high return on investment before spending grant money on new technology.”

Most explosive detection devices currently available though were developed in response to aviation-related threats and requirements and “have almost no application to mass transit,” the IG concluded.

“Despite a $39.4 million increase in the Fiscal Year 2013 President’s Budget request (53 percent over fiscal year 2012), funding levels for this year are uncertain, and further cuts may be necessary,” the IG reported. “To assist with the budget process and to establish funding priorities, S&T senior managers conduct periodic project reviews. An S&T official indicated that the review process allows management to balance its portfolio with a primary focus on available funding, probability of success and importance to the customer component … The official also explained that it is challenging to develop technology without the assurance that developed products would be commercially successful.”

The S&T directorate “believes that without some commitment by a mass transit end-user to co-invest in the technology, it would be difficult to justify long-term allocation of time and resources,” the IG said.

One way that an S&T project “succeeds” is when S&T develops and refines a useful new technology to the point that a private sector company can profitably manufacture a product using the new technology, and DHS elements or outside stakeholders will choose to buy that new product.

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