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SPECIAL ANALYSIS: Federal Air Marshals Fail to Assess Capabilities

SPECIAL ANALYSIS: Federal Air Marshals Fail to Assess Capabilities Homeland Security TodayThe Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Office of Training and Development (OTD) assesses air marshals’ training needs using several information sources, but opportunities exist to obtain more feedback from air marshals on whether the training courses they must take met their needs.

OTD primarily assesses air marshals’ training needs by holding curriculum development and review conferences composed of OTD officials, training instructors and other subject matter experts. In assessing courses, conference participants use, among other things, the results of surveys that some air marshals complete on the effectiveness of their training. However, while OTD administers these surveys for air marshal candidates and newly graduated air marshals, it does not use them to obtain feedback from incumbent air marshals on the effectiveness of their annual recurrent training courses.

Systematically gathering feedback from incumbent air marshals would better position OTD to fully assess whether the training program is meeting air marshals’ needs. Additionally, among the training surveys OTD currently administer to air marshals, the response rates have been low. For example, among newly hired air marshals and their supervisors from 2009 through 2011—the last three full years in which the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) hired air marshals—the survey response rates ranged from 16 to 38 percent. Until OTD takes steps to achieve sufficient response rates, OTD cannot be reasonably assured that the feedback it receives represents the full spectrum of views held by air marshals.

FAMS, within TSA, is the federal entity responsible for promoting confidence in the nation’s aviation system through deploying air marshals to protect US air carriers, airports, passengers and crews.

FAMS relies on its annual recurrent training program to ensure incumbent air marshals’ mission readiness, but additional actions could strengthen FAMS’s ability to do so. First, FAMS does not have complete and timely data on the extent to which air marshals have completed their recurrent training. For example, nearly one-quarter of all training records for calendar year 2014 had not been entered into FAMS’s training database within the required time period. Policies that specify who is responsible at the headquarters level for overseeing these activities could help FAMS ensure its data on air marshals’ recurrent training are accurate and up to date.

Second, FAMS requires air marshals to demonstrate proficiency in marksmanship by achieving a minimum score of 255 out of 300 on the practical pistol course every quarter. However, for the remaining recurrent training courses FAMS does not assess air marshals’ knowledge or performance in these courses against a similarly identified level of proficiency, such as by requiring examinations or by using checklists or other objective tools. More objective and standardized methods of determining incumbent air marshals’ mission readiness, as called for by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Learning Evaluation Guide, could help FAMS better and more consistently assess air marshals’ skills and target areas for improvement.

Additionally, in 2015, FAMS developed a health, fitness and wellness program to improve air marshals’ overall health and wellness, but it is too early to gauge the program’s effectiveness.

According to a public version of a sensitive report the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued in June 2016, GAO analyzed FAMS training data for calendar year 2014, the last year of available data, reviewed TSA, OTD and DHS guidance and policies on FAMS’s air marshal training program, interviewed TSA and FAMS headquarters officials and visited the TSA Training Center and 7 of FAMS 22 field offices selected based on size and geographic dispersion.

GAO was asked to assess FAMS’s training program for federal air marshals. The report examined how TSA assesses the training needs of air marshal candidates and incumbent air marshals and any opportunities that exist to improve this assessment, and, the extent to which FAMS ensures that incumbent air marshals are mission ready.

According to the redacted public GAO report, TSA’s OTD assessed air marshals’ training needs using several information sources, but determined “opportunities exist to obtain more feedback from air marshals on whether the training courses they must take met their needs. OTD primarily assesses air marshals’ training needs by holding curriculum development and review conferences composed of OTD officials, training instructors and other subject matter experts. In assessing courses, conference participants use, among other things, the results of surveys that some air marshals complete on the effectiveness of their training.”

“However,” GAO reported, “while OTD administers these surveys for air marshal candidates and newly graduated air marshals, it does not use them to obtain feedback from incumbent air marshals on the effectiveness of their annual recurrent training courses. Systematically gathering feedback from incumbent air marshals would better position OTD to fully assess whether the training program is meeting air marshals’ needs. Additionally, among the training surveys that OTD does currently administer to air marshals, the response rates have been low. For example, among newly hired air marshals and their supervisors from 2009 through 2011—the last three full years in which the Federal Air Marshal Service hired air marshals—the survey response rates ranged from 16 to 38 percent. Until OTD takes steps to achieve sufficient response rates, OTD cannot be reasonably assured that the feedback it receives represents the full spectrum of views held by air marshals."

GAO recommended OTD implement a mechanism for regularly collecting incumbent air marshals’ feedback on their recurrent training, and to take steps to improve the response rates of training surveys it conducts. GAO also recommended FAMS specify in policy who at the headquarters level has oversight responsibility for ensuring that recurrent training records are entered in a timely manner, and develop and implement standardized methods to determine whether incumbent air marshals continue to be mission ready in key skills.

DHS concurred with all of the recommendations.

I have to confess that the recommendations for Federal Air Marshals by GAO made me horse laugh. I was reminded of a phone call I had one week earlier with a former air marshal colleague of mine in Atlanta, and the story he told me about an air marshal being promoted only months after threatening to commit suicide. To me, and thousands of currently serving air marshals, the GAO report seemed like a wag-the-dog diversion of attention that, instead of focusing on the internal divisions, the high rate of suicide, the poor morale, the abuse of positions and the rampant racism, sexism and homophobia, GAO asks the public to ponder what the Federal Air Marshal Service could do better to assess their training and capabilities. It forced me to think about things that frankly, over the past four years, I have sought to forget and never talk about again.

I remembered back to when I took my first few flights as a rookie air marshal. I was excited about the position. I believed the hype and told myself that I was the tip of the spear; the best of the best. I truly believed that the management which oversaw my important mission flights cared about me being the best air marshal I could be. I would get the best training, I told myself. I’m one of the best, I thought. On my fourth mission flight, however, these thoughts began to change. The people in the cabin around me that September day in 2008 were mostly physically fit business men and women in floral shirts and skirts. The flight was destined for Honolulu, Hawaii, and the environment in the cabin was light and jovial. In stark contrast to everyone else sitting in my immediate vicinity, however, was my partner who sat directly across the aisle to my right.

My partner was, in all seriousness, a heart attack waiting to happen. In fact, the heaving of his chest and erratic labored breathing had me concerned for his health and wellbeing from the moment I sat down next to him. I had already learned that this air marshal didn’t just carry the normal issued equipment of a firearm, baton, rescue junior and handcuffs, but this secret agent also carried a sleep apnea bag wherever his special missions took him. As I looked at this hulk of a man, I thought, this is our best. This is the last line of defense in the skies. I really didn’t understand what I was seeing at the time, in all its overweight and undignified glory, but I do now. It was a looking glass into one of the most infectious and systemic problems facing the US government and its national security mission.

In 2011, when I was sent to the Federal Air Marshal Training Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey, I thought, I can really make a difference now. The previous few years had already taught me a lot about how low training standards affected air marshals. I knew that it not only affected an air marshal’s ability to do his or her job, but was a direct cause of the low morale within the Federal Air Marshal Service — a low morale which had been the focus of so many GAO reports.

As I stepped onto the firing line for the first time as an adjunct instructor, I thought, I can help mold these new air marshals and give them the tools they need to survive a terrorist hijacking. I believed this was my chance to make a difference, instead of appealing to the accepted standard politically correct method of training law enforcement officers to fail while appeasing the TSA lawyers in Washington, DC.

These dreams were quickly shattered when I watched the full-time instructors on the firing line coddle weak students because of their race and sexual orientation while refusing to help students who could barely qualify with their firearm. Instead of helping everyone equally and boosting the capabilities of all, instructors flocked toward students who could “pull a race card,” “claim discrimination,” or make some other issue become a legal problem for the US government. As I stepped onto that firing line and saw this, something died inside me. I knew there was little chance of coming back. I knew there was no way to get rid of people who had no business carrying a loaded firearm on a commercial aircraft.

It has been four years since I flew missions as a Federal Air Marshal. I still have many friends inside, and they always tell me the same sad stories. I listen to their complaints and the gross negligence occurring with the Federal Air Marshal Service, but I can’t help see those words which are repeated daily by air marshals — more of a question than a statement, really, and one that is etched into every air marshal’s subconscious like fingernails scraped against a chalkboard: What can you do?

Contributing Writer Clay Biles is a former Navy SEAL and Department of State Diplomatic Security Service contractor who served as a Federal Air Marshal and instructor from 2008-2013. Biles was selected to receive the Distinguished Honor Graduate award upon graduation from the Federal Air Marshal academy and later accepted a number of other commendations during his service. He currently owns and operates High Order Security, a California licensed security consulting firm operating in Mexico providing risk management and assistance to high risk personnel. He’s also author of, The United States Federal Air Marshal Service: A Historical Perspective, 1962-2012, and, Unsecure Skies. He also wrote the report, The Secret World of Federal Air Marshals, in the December, 2013 Homeland Security Today. The article provoked a terse response from FAMS, which we reported in the November 2013 Homeland Security Today.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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