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OIG Suggests Passenger Screening Canine Teams Are a Waste of Money

In fiscal year 2018, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spent nearly $77 million for 287 Passenger Screening Canine (PSC) teams to screen passengers and baggage for explosive odors at airport security checkpoints. 

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at DHS has reported on its recent review to determine whether TSA deployed PSC teams as necessary to fulfill its layered approach for passenger aircraft security and detect a variety of explosive items to safeguard the traveling public. It’s not good news for the canine teams.

TSA uses two information systems to record daily utilization, training, and assessment data for PSC teams. The Asset Management Database tracks certification and training status information for canine teams and results of assessments conducted by field personnel. The Canine Website System tracks operational data such as utilization and training records, as well as Canine Training Center assessment data for canine teams. Daily utilization records may include searches by canines, public visibility activities, and passenger and cargo screening information. 

OIG’s investigation found that TSA cannot show deployment and use of its PSC teams provide effective security at passenger screening checkpoints. OIG found a number of faults with PSC deployment including a failure to determine the number of teams needed to provide security and mitigate risks. This is because TSA does not identify and document mission needs, capability gaps, and operational goals for deploying the teams.

In addition, TSA may not be allocating PSC teams to the highest risk airports because it does not properly justify and document allocation decisions. OIG also found TSA has not determined whether the limited use of PSC teams provides sufficient security because it cannot justify the teams as the best, most cost-effective checkpoint security.

OIG also said TSA cannot be assured airports are using PSC teams properly because it does not adequately oversee TSA management operations at airports. 

Once it receives a canine, TSA trains the dog and handler at its Canine Training Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. At the time of OIG’s review, TSA provided 20 weeks of initial PSC training, which included odor recognition training and development of search patterns, responses, and endurance in multiple aviation environments. 

The training center provided PSC handlers with 12 weeks of training. The classroom training included search techniques before TSA paired the handler with the canine. Once paired, the PSC team completes the training. After graduation, the PSC team is sent to a designated airport and is given 30 days to acclimate to the new operational environment. 

A regional canine training instructor administers an initial Operational Transition Assessment to evaluate the PSC team’s performance at the assigned airport. The team is certified to conduct screening activities once it successfully completes the evaluation. 

To measure a canine’s ability to detect an explosive odor and its handler’s ability to recognize and respond to the canine’s change of behavior within an operational environment, TSA periodically conducts a covert exercise called a Short Notice Assessment (SNA). 

During the investigation, OIG found that TSA is not training canines to detect the most significant current explosive threats, and has not updated its explosive training aids to ensure they include emerging threats. It is worth noting that canines have inherent limitations, restricting TSA’s ability to train PSCs to detect all significant explosive threats. As a result, the U.S. aviation system and the traveling public could be at risk of a catastrophic event caused by an undetected explosive device. 

Another consideration could be that the canines may detect a higher number of samples in training than they do in an operational environment, due to the nature of training and the reality of the number of explosives attempting to be smuggled through the checkpoint. If a dog does not make enough positive detections, it could lack motivation and, pardon the pun, take its eye off the ball.

Given the identified limitations, OIG says TSA could have redirected the nearly $77 million spent on PSC teams in fiscal year 2018 to other security programs and activities to better protect the aviation system. 

In order to improve PSC team operations, OIG recommends that TSA develop a detailed PSC plan and implement policies to: 

  • identify and document the canine program’s current operational capability needs and number of PSC teams necessary for effective checkpoint screening; 
  • formalize a documented methodology to justify PSC team allocation decisions; 
  • create a formal process to analyze and document capabilities of PSC teams and justify whether the teams or other options provide the best, cost-effective security at checkpoints; and 
  • hold Federal Security Directors accountable for using the teams as intended by the National Explosives Detection Canine Team Program to maintain effectiveness. 

Additionally, OIG says TSA should establish a process to ensure local compliance with this guidance. 

TSA concurred and described plans to develop a formal, risk-based PSC Capability Strategic Road Map to address all components of this recommendation. The Road Map will identify capability needs, validate and enhance a risk-based allocation methodology, formalize Federal Security Director accountability, and implement measures to provide Federal Security Directors with the knowledge and resources needed to manage PSC teams. The estimated completion date is September 30, 2020.

In addition, OIG wants TSA to demonstrate the need and cost-effectiveness of PSC teams and then establish a formal process to conduct an annual assessment of the Canine Explosives Odor List with current explosives threats based on intelligence information. The Canine Explosives Odor List should then be updated, based on the assessment conducted, to include current explosive threat odors canines may be able to detect that are not hazardous to the safety of the PSC teams. 

TSA concurred with this second recommendation and explained that the agency has developed a Requirements Engineering Integrated Process Manual to guide implementation of TSA’s engineering methodology. TSA noted that is has prioritized research and development to determine canine capabilities in eight key areas and gain insight into canine behavior in working environments. Future updates to the Canine Odor List will include both hazardous and non-hazardous materials. The estimated completion date is March 31, 2021. 

While this is a somewhat damning report from OIG, the recommendations, if fully addressed, should overcome the issues uncovered in the review.

Read the full report at OIG

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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