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GAO Reviews TSA’s Security Training Program as Deadline Approaches

In 2020, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) implemented a final rule that security-sensitive surface transportation employees receive security training. TSA identified 127 surface transportation owner/operators that it determined to be at higher risk of being targeted or used by terrorists because, for example, they ship hazardous materials or operate in high-density urban areas. The 127 surface transportation operations include 27 freight railroads, 47 public transportation and passenger railroads, and 53 over-the-road bus operations.

These owner/operators were required to submit security training programs for TSA review by June 2021. The programs should include information on how security-sensitive employees should prepare for, observe, assess, and respond to terrorist-related threats and other security incidents. For example, training courses must teach employees to identify suspicious or dangerous items such as improvised explosive devices; appropriately report a security threat; and interact with the public and first responders at the scene of a security threat or incident. Employees who are to receive such training include those who maintain vehicles, provide security, or load cargo and baggage and the requirement extends to contracted employees.

On April 20, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that TSA had reviewed each of the 121 submitted training programs (88 of 121) as of December 2021. TSA officials reported that the submitted training programs were generally around 40 pages, though some programs were up to 200 pages. The officials further noted that several larger operations submitted training programs that included multi-media, computer-based trainings, while many smaller operations submitted programs incorporating PowerPoint slide presentations for delivery at in-person trainings.

TSA developed a standardized 22-item checklist for each of the three transportation modes to assist panel members to complete their review and document findings. If a training program is missing any of the required topics, TSA officials request that the submitting owner/operator resubmit a revised program. TSA reported that it returned 84 percent of the submitted programs to owner/operators at least once for revision. The primary reason for TSA-requested revisions was that programs did not cover all the required training topics. For example, the panel asked at least one operator to revise their program to include required information on the types of security concerns that employees should report to TSA and procedures for evacuating individuals with disabilities and the elderly at the scene of a security incident. Smaller operations often did not include enough information in their programs, which TSA attributed to them being unaccustomed to preparing materials that a federal agency would review for compliance. Several larger operations submitted ample materials from their existing security training initiatives but did not indicate how these materials fulfilled TSA’s requirements. 

As of December 31, 2021, six of 127 owner/operators had not yet submitted security training programs to TSA. GAO reviewed documentation of TSA’s ongoing contacts with representatives from each of these operations, which includes a combination of warning notices, inspections conducted, and one-on-one meetings to clarify training program submission requirements. According to officials, TSA has opened investigations into each of these operations and established records of agreed-upon extension deadlines. They stated that these records will facilitate any enforcement actions TSA may decide to take if officials determine that these owner/operators do not intend to comply.

Some owner/operators are now training employees, and they generally have one year from the date of TSA’s approval of their program to complete such training. Representatives from one industry association expected that many owner/operators—particularly, bus owner/operators—would wait until close to the one-year deadline to complete the training because they are focused on addressing other priorities such as employee shortages and low morale due to the COVID19 pandemic. TSA plans to begin inspections of each of the 127 operations once these deadlines occur. These inspections will focus on the extent to which the programs meet requirements, according to TSA officials, who added that they might be able to combine inspections of the security training program with inspections relating to other TSA regulations.

When surveyed by GAO, surface transportation industry associations and selected owner/operators said that TSA resources—including training videos, checklists, and webinars—were generally helpful to the development of their training programs. Most respondents said TSA’s security training program will directly benefit their operation and those who did not said they already had sufficient security training programs in place prior to the TSA requirement.

Some of the owner/operators that GAO spoke with stated that it would have been helpful if TSA had provided a model training program that owner/operators could use as a reference as they developed their programs. TSA responded that it decided not to do so because it wanted the owner/operators to retain some degree of flexibility to take into account their own unique operations.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
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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