The Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) best of the best traveled to the nation’s capital recently for a fierce competition but one that promoted unity and team building, as Don Wagner, from TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs explains:
Over 100 TSA officers from 18 states and several territories put their security screening knowledge and skills to the test in the second annual TSA National Olympics, flying from as far away as Saipan to Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD).
Team Caribbean, represented by officers from Puerto Rico’s Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport and Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on the island of St. Croix, took home the gold. South Carolina won the silver, and Wisconsin earned the bronze.
Officers from 46 airports competed in checkpoint and checked baggage screening events.
“The Olympics are motivating for everyone involved,” said IAD TSA Federal Security Director Scott T. Johnson. “It takes a lot of work to get here. It tests the skills we do every day – standard operating procedures (SOP), pat-downs, baggage checks, X-ray interpretation. This event builds teamwork and camaraderie and provides a great networking opportunity for participants.”
Jose Rivera, assistant federal security director-screening for the Caribbean, said getting into the TSA National Olympics was already a huge accomplishment for Team Caribbean, but taking the gold was icing on the cake.
“Our officers demonstrated their commitment to enhance their knowledge, skills and threat detection techniques throughout the entire competition,” said a very proud Rivera. “Their training and efforts were rewarded, and their performance was recognized. I can’t thank enough all those who provided assistance to make this happen. Congratulations to all who participated! You all set an amazing example for everyone.”
Supervisory Officer Nou Chee Yang, a member of bronze medal winner Team Wisconsin and a 15-year TSA veteran, took the checkpoint image test, which required participants to detect prohibited items from 20 X-ray images in just seven minutes.
“It wasn’t too bad, because the [training] simulator is also timed, so it was like doing what you do every day,” Yang confidently said.
Yang was a repeat Olympian, competing last year in the inaugural event in Chicago.
“I kind of knew what to expect this year,” said Yang, who described the TSA National Olympics as fun. “You get to meet people, other officers from other airports and get to know other people from other airports within your own state who you don’t normally get to interact with.”
Anthony Manthey, a lead officer from South Bend International Airport, called it a “great honor” to be named to the Indiana Olympic team.
“I thought, ‘finally my hard work is being recognized a little more,’” noted Manthey. “It was a great opportunity for everybody to bring us together. The whole team building aspect was great, too, because when we went to [Indianapolis] to practice, it was a wonderful exchange of ideas. It’s great passing on each other’s knowledge.”
Officer David Neal joined Manthey on Team Indiana and spent extra time, even off-duty time, preparing for the Olympics.
“I prepared by researching SOPs a little more, things you don’t always see throughout the day,” said Neal. “Every once in a while, I’d step off [the checkpoint] or on my day off, I’d go and check the SOP and see any updates and give myself a good refresher. If I didn’t know, I’d ask.”
Each team designated certain officers to participate in specific competitions based on their biggest strengths.
Master Security Training Instructor Yelienid Cintrón Quiles from Portland International Airport and a member of Team Oregon brought a smile to everyone’s faces while competing in the passenger pat-down competition. She exuded a special enthusiasm that was contagious and expected to gain further knowledge by taking part in the Olympics.
“The things I already know, I was able to reinforce them,” Cintrón Quiles emphasized. “Anything that was new from other peers’ experiences, I was able to review and determine that’s the right thing. I was able to get immediate feedback and figure out if I need to work on certain things just to be a steadier officer.”
Christopher Marchiniak, a supervisory officer from Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, said the events were challenging but were very beneficial for his team which drew closer by competing in the Olympics.
“I think it definitely raises morale and gets the competitive spirit up,” Marchiniak assessed. “More training experience, new friends and hopefully a morale booster to bring back to my airport that says, ‘You guys should definitely come.’”
The goal of the Olympics was to reignite dedication to TSA’s mission, promote unity, build relationships and test TSA knowledge and skills. Lead Officer Matthew O’Brien of Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas called it an “awesome” and “amazing” experience.
“A recommitment and re-energizing, a morale boost for us,” O’Brien added. “I’m looking forward to seeing this in the future and how it evolves and becomes bigger. I think it’s a pretty cool event.”
With all the momentum of the Olympics’ first two years, could TSA headquarters soon get involved?
“There’s already been discussions that headquarters will assume responsibility for the TSA National Olympics,” replied IAD Deputy Federal Security Director Eric Beane. “I think next year for the third annual TSA National Olympics, you’ll see headquarters driving more of it, but each airport that participates still has to do all the work throughout the year to identify the final competitors.”
As he continued to ponder the next steps, Beane said, “The TSA Olympics are the patriotism and pride for the airport you represent. It’s all one mission with TSA, and people here are excited to get to know their counterparts they may have never met. It’s more than just who’s going to win the Olympics.”
IAD Supervisory Transportation Security Specialist-Explosives Peter Schulze, who took the lead in organizing this year’s Olympics, is taking charge in growing the national competition by sending hundreds of emails to airports across the country interested in launching a local Olympics.
“The feedback I’m getting is overwhelmingly positive that officers can’t get enough of this,” said Schulze. “They’re out here for the nationals, and they love it. I’m hearing great success stories from other airports and how much they like it.”
Schulze believes the traveling public should feel extremely pleased that TSA officers don’t just consider protecting the nation’s aviation system a 9-to-5 job.
“Officers take pride in wanting to excel at detection, to catch threats,” he said. “It ultimately keeps [the public] safe.”
Johnson feels it’s important for the public to understand it’s not just a robot standing there screening people at the checkpoint.
“It’s a human. It’s a neighbor. It’s a friend,” said Johnson. “It’s a family member who is screening 2.5 million passengers a day, doing the same SOPs at 450 airports nationwide, and I think showing the public we are pretty good at what we do. We are experts at what we do, and this is the cream of the crop.”