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TSA not using detection dogs effectively, says GAO report

TSA detection dog

The TSA’s explosives detection and cargo screening dogs aren’t being used efficiently or effectively at the nation’s airports, according to a Government Accountability Office study released on Jan. 31.

In the report, the GAO took the TSA to task on its training and deployment of passenger screening canines (PSC) at airports around the country, saying in some cases the dogs and their handlers weren’t being used at some airports because of airport operators’ doubts about their capabilities in handling difficult situations.

The GAO analyzed canine team training data from the Canine Website System (CWS) that TSA uses to capture the amount of time canine teams conduct training as well as searching for explosives odor, among other functions. That analysis showed, said the GAO, that from May 2011 through April 2012 some canine teams were repeatedly not in compliance with TSA's monthly training requirement—four hours of training every four weeks.

The government watchdog agency’s analysis of TSA's cargo-screening data from September 2011 through July 2012 also showed canine teams primarily responsible for screening air cargo placed on passenger aircraft exceeded their monthly screening requirement, suggesting TSA could increase the percentage of air cargo it requires air cargo canine teams to screen, or redeploy teams.

Additionally, according to GAO, TSA hasn’t deployed PSCs -- dogs trained to identify and track explosives odor on people -- consistent with its risk-based approach, and didn’t determine PSC teams' effectiveness prior to deployment.

The report caught the eye of some key congressional homeland security leaders, who said it shows TSA’s continuing issues with efficiency.

“TSA has not determined whether Passenger Screening Canine teams can mitigate threats at airports, and despite inconclusive analysis, it has invested at least $19 million a year in the program,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee in a statement after the GAO report was issued. “Without proper assessments and scientific evaluation of screening programs, TSA will continue to miss the mark in ensuring that taxpayers’ dollars are used in effective programs that that improve passenger security while complementing proven screening programs.” 

GAO said TSA's 2012 Strategic Framework calls for the deployment of PSC teams based on risk, but the government watchdog agency found PSC teams haven’t been deployed to the highest-risk airport locations because TSA said it generally defers to airport officials on the need to deploy them. The agency told GAO that some airport operators have decided against using PSC teams because of concerns related to the composition and capabilities of PSC teams, including their capabilities to respond to suicide bombers at checkpoints. The agency didn’t name the airports that declined the teams, however.

As a result of these concerns, the PSC teams deployed to higher-risk airport locations are not being used for passenger screening as intended, but for other purposes, such as screening air cargo or training, said GAO.

The GAO said although TSA has been working with aviation stakeholders to resolve concerns about PSC team deployment, as of September, they’ve been unable to resolve them. GAO also said TSA began deploying PSC teams in April 2011 before determining the teams' operational effectiveness or identifying where within an airport the teams would be most effectively used.

TSA is in the process of assessing the effectiveness of PSC teams in the operational environment, said GAO, but the testing isn’t comprehensive since it does not include all areas at the airport or compare PSCs with already deployed conventional canines (trained to detect explosives in stationary objects). GAO recommended more comprehensive testing that could provide TSA with greater assurance that its PSC teams effectively identify explosives odor on passengers.

The TSA said that beyond its ongoing testing and evaluation, it will update its website that monitors the program in March to better track the passenger screening by dogs in the same way it does for cargo.

TSA also replied that it continues to evaluate and modify its risk-based deployment methodology as needed and that it will deploy future teams to highest-priority airports based on both operational and risk-based analysis.


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