Memoirs of an Airport Security Screener

This person worked as an airport security screener years before 9/11, before the TSA, so hopefully things are different now. It's a pretty fascinating read, though.

Two things pop out at me. One, as I wrote, it's a mind-numbingly boring task. And two, the screeners were trained not to find weapons, but to find the particular example weapons that the FAA would test them on.

"How do you know it's a gun?" he asked me.

"it looks like one," I said, and was immediately pounded on the back.

"Goddamn right it does. You get over here," yelled Mike to Will.

"How do you know it's a gun?"

"I look for the outline of the cartridge and the..." Will started.

"What?"

"The barrel you can see right here," Will continued, oblivious to his pending doom.

"What the hell are you talking about? That's not how you find this gun."

"No sir. It's how you find any gun, sir," said Will. I knew right then that this was a disaster.

"Any gun? Any gun? I don't give a fuck about any gun, dipshit. I care about this gun. The FAA will not test you with another gun. The FAA will never put any gun but this one in the machine. I don't care if you are a fucking gun nut who can tell the caliber by sniffing the barrel, you look for this gun. THIS ONE." Mike strode to the test bag and dumped it out at the feet of the metal detector, sending the machine into a frenzy.

"THIS bomb. This knife. I don't care if you miss a goddamn bazooka and some son of a bitch cuts your throat with a knife you let through as long as you find THIS GUN."

"But we're supposed to find," Will insisted.

"You find what I trained you to find. The other shit doesn't get taken out of my paycheck when you miss it," said Mike.

Not exactly the result we're looking for, but one that makes sense given the economic incentives that were at work.

I sure hope things are different today.

Posted on July 28, 2006 at 6:22 AM • 65 Comments

Comments

bobJuly 28, 2006 7:12 AM

I am certain my government would never spend my hard-earned (but easily removed from my posession by them) tax dollars on such farcical security as this. Anybody got any waterfront property in FL I can buy?

It seems no one in america can tell the difference between learning a subject and passing a test on said subject. Hopefully they at least have a range of test weapons now, instead of the standardized "weapon, firearm, non-functional, example, 1ea" as referenced in the article.

I was a government contractor in IT field service once. A new product came out. If people didnt know how to use it properly it generated a service call. I would unscrew the problem and show people how to prevent it happening again. My supervisor chewed me out. "We have a contract to fix stuff, not to provide training to people, knock it off". "But if I dont train them, it will be broke again before I get out the door. Nevermind the near-fraud involved in the act, wont it make the company look bad to break again that fast?" (repeat above loop until tired, then quit)

JoJuly 28, 2006 8:21 AM

This is a good example of why it's stupid to employ people to enforce rules without them truly understanding why the rules (or guidelines) have been put in place. For example, parking attendants often hand out fines to motorists who aren't causing an obstruction or any harm - their "crime" was simply that they had broken some dumb rule.

I believe I'm right in saying that in the UK if you're drunk and decide to spend the night in your car then you're ok, but if you start the engine to keep warm then you can be arrested for drink driving.

Security personnel should not be given quotas, nor should they be trained to look lists of specific items at the cost of ignoring everything else.

dbhJuly 28, 2006 8:34 AM

I think the problem comes when training supercedes thinking, instead of supporting it. If you hire $5/hr folks, then you have to train the crap out of them to be able to spot even the specific FAA gun. So the rules were set such that trainers get beat if their trainees missed The Gun. Instead of treating foks like thinking people, this is what you will get, perverse incentives...

pigletJuly 28, 2006 8:37 AM

Moderator has closed down a thread about Lebanon. This is a stupid decision. Lebanon war is highly reelvant for security even in the conctext of this blog. Many of us are outraged and worried that the pro-Israel partysanship of Western governments and media is not only morally wrong, it is also a political mistake that will bolster terrorism and endanger our lives. This is a topic that Bruce has often commented on and prevented us to discuss it further is just dumb.

DLLJuly 28, 2006 8:37 AM

This article reminded me to visit the TSA web site to answer a question that occurred to me on a recent trip. While I was there, I stumbled across this paragraph on a page about travelling with children...

"Keep an eye out for kid-friendly lanes. In Denver International Airport for example, our Security Officers talk to the kids, give them a sticker with a smiling face and use hand puppets to entertain them as they go through the metal detector. If secondary screening is necessary, our Security Officers will ask kids to stand on special mats that feature cats and dinosaurs and use a fuzzy “caterpillar��? that wraps around the hand wand, making it friendlier."

Wouldn't air travel be that much better if they used the friendly caterpillar wand on all of us? Maybe if they printed out the no fly list on some Dora the Explorer stationary, we would all just relax a bit. God bless the TSA!

XyzJuly 28, 2006 9:10 AM

Frightening indeed, but I'm not entirely convinced that this is a factual account. Perhaps I'm being a bit paranoid, but does anyone know who xC0000005 is and why are we believing a story he posted on kuro5hin?

ModeratorJuly 28, 2006 9:21 AM

Piglet, you're welcome to think it's dumb, but you're not welcome to hijack another thread in order to continue a closed-down topic.

CircusFreakJuly 28, 2006 9:25 AM

@xyz

I worked on Airport security in the UK prior up until August of 2001. I can assure you that it was exactly like that.

I don't deny that xC0000005 may have ulterior motives... but from my own personal expereince, he's telling the truth.

Bruce SchneierJuly 28, 2006 9:27 AM

"rightening indeed, but I'm not entirely convinced that this is a factual account. Perhaps I'm being a bit paranoid, but does anyone know who xC0000005 is and why are we believing a story he posted on kuro5hin?"

My guess is that the story is embellished for effect, but that it's basically true. We all knew that pre-9/11 airport screening was a joke.

pigletJuly 28, 2006 9:35 AM

Moderator, you are welcome to reopen that other thread. Otherwise, you are committing censorship. In this forum, people every day leave the narrow topic of a thread to discuss wider issues. This is the first time that you are trying to shut such a discussion down. Why? This smacks of political censorship. It is outrageous that you remove a post that is my response to an attack posted on this forum. I have ever right to respond.

Mark J.July 28, 2006 9:40 AM

I'm sure it's different these days.

"How do you know those are knitting needles?"

"I don't care about any nose-hair trimmer! I care about THIS particular nose hair trimmer!"

bobJuly 28, 2006 9:43 AM

@piglet: Its his forum. Y'all were beating a dead horse. And "censorship" is what moderators do.

DLLJuly 28, 2006 9:45 AM

Sorry, Piglet. You do not have a "right" to respond. Moderator is in charge. Start your own blog if you want to have some rights.

bobJuly 28, 2006 9:46 AM

I see where Varig (the Brazilian airline) was just bought for $24M. So if a terrorist group bought them, they now have control over how many planes? And they wont need nosehair trimmers to sieze any of them with.

pigletJuly 28, 2006 9:50 AM

"And "censorship" is what moderators do."

Oh, and I thought this is America ;-) Censorship is just dumb, I thought we'd figured that out long ago? What is especially dumb in this case is that there is no justification. We were discussing the security concerns of journalists, UN peace keepers and other civilians in the Lebanon war, in a thread headed "Press Security Concerns in Lebanon". What's wrong with that? Now we have to discuss censorship instead of simply dscussion the issue. Dumb. It's a no-win trade-off.

pigletJuly 28, 2006 9:53 AM

@bob: it may be "his forum", but what exactly does he gain by censoring us? A sense of power, of being important? I guess what he has to gain is mainly a bad reputation.

LarryJuly 28, 2006 9:57 AM

Piglet,
If you want to discuss Lebanon, I suggest you start your own blog, or wait for a relevant topic. The rest of us didn't come to this topic to discuss Lebanon, or any one of many other current security issues.

For that matter, the right of someone to censor someone in their own home, or on their own website is dramatically different than the govenrment restricting the right to speech.

KeithJuly 28, 2006 10:04 AM

I would note that the closing comment on the lebanon thread does say:

"Comments on this entry have been closed. If you would like to leave a comment, please use a more recent entry."

Phrased that way implies, to me at least, continue the rants somewhere else (on this blog)

pigletJuly 28, 2006 10:06 AM

"If you want to discuss Lebanon, I suggest you start your own blog, or wait for a relevant topic." The relevant topic has been closed down by the Moderator, in an act of arbitrary censorship. What part of this fact is it you don't get?

"For that matter, the right of someone to censor someone in their own home, or on their own website is dramatically different than the govenrment restricting the right to speech." I'd never have believed you guys supporting censorship. So as long as censorship is private, it's okay? So that shopping mall owner who had clients arrested for wearing an anti-Bush T-shirt was right, after all? Frankly, that attitude goes a long way of explaining the sorry state of free speech in this country.

Christopher Robin Sr.July 28, 2006 10:08 AM

@piglet

if [ -n $off_topic ]
then
echo $piglet_rants > /dev/null
fi

Silly piglet. You should be nicer like pooh bear.

pigletJuly 28, 2006 10:15 AM

"Silly piglet." Oh great. Now that was a really constructive contribution to this forum. And so funny, too.

AnonymousJuly 28, 2006 10:18 AM

I don't know, I flew through security with a carry on bag filled with homemade electronics. I have no idea how one could look at that on the monitor and know it isn't a bomb.

Yay for security theater.

MJuly 28, 2006 10:41 AM

"Kid-friendly lanes?" Who are you kidding? Let me tell you my experience....

Small airport in Connecticut.

I go through first. They ask if I want to take off my shoes. I say, "No, not really." I've been through these machines a thousand times. I know I'm clean. I'm not going to set anything off.

Sadly, Richard Reid didn't have the common decency to hide his bomb inside his rectum. So now anyone who doesn't "volunteer" to x-ray his (or her) shoes must be a terrorist. And I'm given the third degree. (What these people were thinking, I don't know. I've got my wife and two kids with me, the oldest of which is 2. Do terrorists really participate in bring-your-family-to-work day?)

So they're practically strip-searching me (take off your belt, unsnap your pants, etc), and the "security" brain trust decides my two year old son has to walk though the metal detector by himself.

My son takes on look at the scary guys, and how they're mistreating Daddy, and takes off running the other way.

Fortunately, he's on a "leash".

Unfortunately, he's a little too smart for our own good. He was "motivated" to slip the leash, and did so remarkably fast.

I immediately went after him. (He's too young to know to look out for vehicles, etc.)

Security staff tries to stop me. "Oh no sir. Once you've begun our security inspection you can't leave until we're finished."

And naturally, I completely ignored them and run after my son.

(What, like I'm going to just let him go? Bye bye. So sad. Go make another kid...)


There were two things that kept this story off the front pages of CNN.

(1) The jackass didn't try to physically stop me. (I would have hurt him. You get between me and my kid's safety, I don't really care which side you're on. It's not mine.)

(2) Nobody at the security checkpoint had a gun. (They would have shot me.)


They did go all "code-blue", and crawl up my ass with a microscope. (Not that they weren't already doing that...) "We said we'd have to search his shoes and he took off running..."


My family wants me to fly out and visit them again this summer. I've got to ask myself, is it worth dying for? That just seems wrong on so many levels. Why should I have to fear our "security" forces so much more than actual "terrorists"?


On the other hand, you've got to figure that terrorists will attack the weakest point in the chain, so to speak. Right now, that's the security checkpoints. These annoying assholes could very well be the first to die. (If the security machines are broken, no pilots can get through for the planes. Given our hub-based air transportation infrastructure... Plus thousands of people tightly packed into a small space, all waiting their turn... It's an obvious target.)

Pooh BearJuly 28, 2006 10:42 AM

@piglet

>"Silly piglet." Oh great. Now that was a really constructive contribution to this forum. And so funny, too.

Oh Bother. Me thinks piglet should indulge in a pot of honey. It always stops the rumbly in my tummy.

markJuly 28, 2006 10:58 AM

Once I accidently took a large machete in my carry on flying to Central America. Now I at least know how it managed to get through.

Clive RobinsonJuly 28, 2006 11:00 AM

@Jo

"I believe I'm right in saying that in the UK if you're drunk and decide to spend the night in your car then you're ok, but if you start the engine to keep warm then you can be arrested for drink driving."

Not sure about the current status in the UK but at one time you where guilty of Drunk Driving if you where over the limit and had the car keys in your pocession.

This was explained to me one New Years Eve (or was it day by then ;) by a Police officer as two of his colleagues carted of some bloke who was admittidly so drunk he was on his knees with his eye about six inches from the car door lock repeatedly failing to get the key in. The two officers who took him away simply put their hands under his arm pits and lifted, the bloke meanwhile carried on trying to put the key into thin air. (the Police officer did explain it was as much for his protection as for ours and he would in all likley hood be turfed out without charge when he was sober enough to walk home).

The reason I spoke to the Police man, well I was gently chiding him about stoping what was free street entertainment, that I and several others had been enjoying;)

Back then things where a lot more good natured, Police officers did not have (unofficial) quoters to fill etc.

ModeratorJuly 28, 2006 11:09 AM

Keith: excellent point. I will change that boilerplate.

"Pooh Bear": cut it out, please.

Piglet: this is a security blog. Bruce often touches on politics, and commenters usually get lots of latitude to wander over the line into politics, but it's still not the place to have the same debates about hot-button political topics that are already happening on political blogs all over the net. This is a longstanding policy.

If you want to post on any topic that interests you, you can indeed start your own blog. If you believe that free speech should give you the right to post anything you want on any website you want, you might have to start your own country.

gmJuly 28, 2006 11:20 AM

I think the scariest was "By the end of my time at ASC I could walk through carrying any of them without setting off the detector."

bobJuly 28, 2006 11:24 AM

@M: lol. Last week I went through the scanner shoeless to avoid that and the guy ahead of me dumped an entire Starbucks on the ground. Simultaneously they decided my bag was in need of further attention, so they stopped the xray conveyor. With my shoes inside. Now I am standing almost blocking the metal detector (note to self: always put shoes in first), they want me to "walk this way" and I dont want to soak my socks in coffee for a same-day business trip. I cant put my shoes on because the have to inspect my bag before they restart the conveyor. Gridlock! Fortunately I was able to convince them of the wisdom of scanning my shoes and returning them to me. Mopping the floor would have been nice, but the janitorial personnel probably have metal buckets and would have to take that through the scanner as well, besides as many people's fungi as have already hopped on to the bus (my feet) its probably pointless. Btw, it was a tiny Li-Ion camera battery which triggered the special hi-intensity testing; looks JUST LIKE a gun on 3-d high tech color xray.

Old OwlJuly 28, 2006 11:41 AM

Thank you Moderator. You will not hear from Christopher Robin Sr. or Pooh Bear.

Back on track, it seems this topic and the one with the air marshals bring up a question about what set of metrics does DHS use and what metrics should they use? There are always going to be a set of metrics applied. But given that the previous story produces the wrong behavior what suggestions do you have to change the behavior to results we would like to see?

Old OwlJuly 28, 2006 11:59 AM

>what metrics should they use?

I guess one answer to my question in regards to the story is FAA/DHS gun checks should be with a random gun and not a preset specific gun.

Now that the list of silly items such as nail clippers have been reduced, maybe the metics can also focus on a narrow set of items that should always be discovered, guns and knives. Maybe they already have metrics for this but since I only have this article to go from, I will assume not.

Davi OttenheimerJuly 28, 2006 12:05 PM

"you might have to start your own country"

Very funny and a rather ironic suggestion based on the topic that was closed, no? Perhaps you also should have suggested starting an armed resistance movement as a stepping-stone to starting a country?

"You find what I trained you to find. The other shit doesn't get taken out of my paycheck when you miss it"

I love this story/quote. It is so frustrating sometimes to have to get people to let go of their rigid approaches to problems, but this does a good job of making it into an amusing anecdote. Reminds me of that old saw about teaching people how to fish as opposed to giving them a can of tuna and an opener.

XyzJuly 28, 2006 12:33 PM

"Reminds me of that old saw about teaching people how to fish as opposed to giving them a can of tuna and an opener."

I prefer the newer saw:
Build a man a fire and he'll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he'll be warm for the rest of his life. ;)

pigletJuly 28, 2006 12:36 PM

Moderator: "Piglet: this is a security blog. Bruce often touches on politics, and commenters usually get lots of latitude to wander over the line into politics, but it's still not the place to have the same debates about hot-button political topics that are already happening on political blogs all over the net. This is a longstanding policy."

"Longstanding policy"? Which thread on this site has ever been closed down for debating "hot-button political topics"?

The distinction you are making between security and politics is bogus, as Bruce's own posts amply demonstrate. The thread you closed down was concerned, among others, with the Geneva Conventions, given that those conventions include special guarantees for journalists (the topic with which Bruce started the thread) and other non-combatants. This is not a matter of politics in the sense of "political taste". Whether the Geneva Conventions are violated or not is not a matter of taste or belief. As I stated before (and you erased), the Geneva Conventions are designed as a security contract. It only has any effect if violating parties face some consequences. If one party is consistently seen to be getting away with war crimes then other parties will understand that it doesn't pay to play by the rules. That's why it matters whether violators are condemned, or supported, by our governments, our media, by us. That is the security lesson we need to understand and your attempt of suppressing that message is not only politically motivated censure, it also reveals that you don't understand security. And you don't understand moderating online forums.

Frank McGowanJuly 28, 2006 1:49 PM

Before this one gets shut down...

The use of a "standard" gun bothers me greatly. Though I could not "tell the caliber by sniffing the barrel," I think I could probably recognize more than one type of gun.

I sincerely hope they would notice a disassembled gun in a carry-on...

I think I'll just drive from now on.

Matt AusternJuly 28, 2006 2:05 PM

It's a genuinely hard problem. The screeners are supposed to be looking for a one-in-a-million event. Well, that's not literally true. Literally, they're looking for something even rarer than that. The vast majority of screeners will never, over the course of their entire career, see a genuine criminal trying to smuggle a weapon onto an airplane.

So you're trying to train someone to recognize something they will never see, and you're trying to evaluate how well they're doing their job and how well the trainers did their jobs. What's the best way to do that? And how do you evaluate the evaluation method? I doubt if there is any easy answer.

RichJuly 28, 2006 2:52 PM

Bomb sniffing dogs are occasionally given fake bombs to find so that they don't get too depressed about failing their jobs.

The same could be done for screeners. Find a gun, and get some praise and recognition. Feel good about your job. Get an adrenaline rush. Of course, that might push up the false positive rate a bit...

Old OwlJuly 28, 2006 3:02 PM

>Of course, that might push up the false positive rate a bit

Only if you also reward false positives.

Maybe DHS should do a regular job at screening the screeners and attach bonuses for accuracy. This way the screeners are not just "saving lives" they can make more $$$. I am sure if done well, it would pick up interest a bit with screeners. It's got to be a better way to spend the money then how they have already done so.

RichJuly 28, 2006 3:25 PM

>>Of course, that might push up the false positive rate a bit

>Only if you also reward false positives.

You'd have to actually punish false positives to some degree, or there would be no incentive not to flag any slight possibility as a "What the heck"

AnonymousJuly 28, 2006 3:31 PM

>You'd have to actually punish false positives to some degree, or there would be no incentive not to flag any slight possibility as a "What the heck"

That's a good point. Maybe a point system. Find a real offending item +50 points. False positive -30 points (some incentive to a little risk. You will risk one false positive but not two). Every 150 points get a tax free cash reward.

Davi OttenheimerJuly 28, 2006 3:47 PM

"So you're trying to train someone to recognize something they will never see"

Yes, which is why they have to be able to analyze and not just immitate.

I think I've mentioned before on this blog when I accidentally packed a large sushi knife in my carry-on. The look on the x-ray machine operators faces (I remember three of them, there might have been more) was priceless. In fact, I almost thought they were all going to run in circles, bounce into each other, and then flee in a panic to find someone who knew what to do. After they calmed down enough to open the bag they were noticeably relieved when they dug out a very nicely wrapped box (think origami meets birthday gift)...fortunately those were the days when security would ship things for you if you made a mistake. Only bad thing was my wrapping paper was in rough shape when I picked it up from airport security at my destination.

AnonymousJuly 28, 2006 3:55 PM

>The look on the x-ray machine operators faces ... was priceless.

Which is another reason for testing the screeners on a constant basis. It's like the millitary, train for battle even during times of peace. If the screeners were tested like descibed above, they would have known what to do right away. Do we have any insight on DHS doing anything like this?

RickJuly 28, 2006 4:56 PM

@Frank McGowan

>I sincerely hope they would notice a disassembled gun in a carry-on...

Only if the disassembled parts looked like nail clippers.

Not so AnonymousJuly 28, 2006 5:26 PM

@Moderator

>This is a longstanding policy.

Are the policies for posting on this blog published anywhere? I searched and didn't find them.

If I know what the plicies are beforehand, I'll know when I've crossed the line. If I can't even discover the policies, I have to keep pushing until my hand gets slapped.

Pat CahalanJuly 28, 2006 5:31 PM

Does a policy of, "When told by the *Moderator* to cease some particular behaviour, cut it out or else" really need to be formalized?

That seems to be on the order of, "Do not feed yourself to the bears" :)

AndrewJuly 28, 2006 10:06 PM

>> It's a genuinely hard problem. The screeners are supposed to be looking for a one-in-a-million event. Well, that's not literally true. Literally, they're looking for something even rarer than that. The vast majority of screeners will never, over the course of their entire career, see a genuine criminal trying to smuggle a weapon onto an airplane.

Have you ever worked as a screener? I know a former screening manager for a Bay Area airport who reported seeing quite a few weapons in her several years of tenure. Everything from idiots who forgot their illegal firearm, CCW permit holders and cops who had a brain fart, gifts for friends (which somehow fall out of the 'weapon' category), and the classic "I didn't even think of that!" which I'm ashamed to admit I did when I brought a handcuff key on my key ring into a courthouse . . .

The chaos that occurred when a "Security Exemplar" (the gun sealed in transparent plastic) got through, got on a plane in someone else's luggage, and was only found when the person flew back two weeks later . . . priceless.

TrevorJuly 29, 2006 2:17 AM

All the TSA added was more bureaucracy and hence more scenarios like this. The average screen probably has an IQ under 100.

Security? Ha!

A gun on a plane isn't dangerous unless the person who brought it aboard has dangerous intent.

Terry KarneyJuly 29, 2006 2:37 AM

The searches I had to put up with in the last flurry of travel (including the seven flights in three days marathon from hell) were actually pretty good.

I'd bought a brass penny whistle in Scotland, and in both Dulles and LAX the screener just called out the whistle, looked at it and told me to move along.

In the past I'd had to put up with my entire bag being searched, swabbed and pretty much disassembled (which is always troublesome when it's my camera bag, and they are getting ready to open it in a way which will cause the contents to spill), but this time they had an object they were curious about and when they'd seen it, shown it to one another so they'd be able to better spot it for what it was, in the future, they thanked me and sent me on my way.

It was, actually, somewhat reassuring.

TK

Tim VernumJuly 29, 2006 8:51 AM

> If the screeners were tested like descibed above, they would have known what to do right away

Yup, they would have said "Hey, this is a test isn't it - did I pass?"
I'm in favour of conducting tests, but they do need to be careful that it doesn't become like a fire drill.
Every time the fire alarm goes off at work everyone says "A drill, at this time? I've got too much work to do". And they sit there and hope that the they don't have to walk down the stairs.

You need to make sure the screeners treat every weapon as a real event, even if it was a test.

John QJuly 29, 2006 12:37 PM

@Trevor
"A gun on a plane isn't dangerous unless the person who brought it aboard has dangerous intent."

And which of those is it easier to screen for: a physical object or a state of mind?

Sadly, the answer seems to be C: None of the above.

John QJuly 29, 2006 12:42 PM

@Tim Vernum
"You need to make sure the screeners treat every weapon as a real event, even if it was a test."

In the US armed services, it's train like you fight, fight like you train.

Even police and fire departments do it that way.

I've seen better-trained volunteer fire departments than much of what TSA passes off as security. I have more faith that one of those volunteer firemen would be able to put out a fire or rescue a person than that any of the screeners, supervisors, or admins would know what to do in a real security situation.

vasiliy pupkinJuly 29, 2006 3:14 PM

The problem is that currently all government performance is based on policies, and if you apply common sense, logic and reason - you are going to be:
-reported by your coworkers to superiors;
-considered by superioirs as rebel;
-never promoted and even fired under different pretext.
Unfortunately, when you take off your brain and blindly apply any policy, rule, regulation, training or law you generate quite opposite results that were intended by policy itself, because you should concentrate on ends, but policies are on means and protecting ass (sorry, but that is true)

Arthur ChaparyanJuly 30, 2006 1:53 AM

If checked baggage was easier to retrieve and was handled more carefully, fewer items would need to be carried on, and therefore less issues with security.

By the way, if they are trained to only spot specific weapons, why not have a computer do it? I thought we had real people there because of our ability to think and not act like a mindless robot.

John QJuly 30, 2006 3:22 PM

@ Davi Ottenheimer
"Would you prefer volunteer TSA agents?"

Unless I missed the passage of the TSA Draft Act, they already are. It's their training that's deficient, and their turnover that's abysmal. If a volunteer fire dept had those kinds of problems, it wouldn't take much insight to see that something was wrong.

"Volunteer" firefighters is a misnomer. It's more accurate to say "part time" or just "not full time". You don't get to run out and fight fires just by volunteering. You have to undergo training and pass tests and stay up on the training. There is usually a small full-time group of professional firefighters to oversee this. The odds of a volunteer firefighter ever seeing a serious fire are low, but if Andrew's Bay Area acquaintance is in any way normal, there are probably about as many fires in a small community as weapons going past an airport checkpoint.

Fix the incentives, fix the training, and the quality will follow. You can't get a consistent quality product from a flawed process. Of course, if there's no incentive to improve the process, you get what we have now.

Davi OttenheimerJuly 30, 2006 6:56 PM

"'Volunteer' firefighters is a misnomer. It's more accurate to say 'part time' or just 'not full time'."

Ok, I'm fine with changing the terms for clarity, but hopefully you didn't miss the meaning of my question: would you prefer part time (or not full time) TSA agents?

And I have to respectfully disagree with your assessment of volunteer fire departments. I know someone who lost their father to a fire while the volunteer fire department stood by unable to help. They were trained, they had oversight, but it took a death to acknowledge that the volunteers weren't ready for a regular house fire, even though they worked with a blaze somewhat frequently and even managed annual controlled burns.

You can say that the odds of a serious fire is low enough that it is unnecessary to have life-saving equipment on hand, but that seems like the same thing as saying the odds of a serious terrorist threat is low enough that it is unnecessary to have highly skilled / full-time TSA agents on hand.

John QJuly 30, 2006 8:44 PM

@Davi Ottenheimer
>would you prefer part time (or not full time) TSA agents?

I prefer full time, with the proper training and incentive structure to reduce turnover, thus allowing growth in experience and depth of skill.

>You can say that the odds of a serious fire is low enough that it is unnecessary to have life-saving equipment on hand,

Please don't put words in my mouth.

Please re-read my original post. I commented on the TRAINING of volunteer fire departments. I did NOT say anything even remotely like "TSA should be staffed by part-timers" or "volunteer FD's don't need life-saving equipment".

I regret your friend's loss. My experience is the opposite. I know several people whose lives were saved by volunteer firefighters, who had been properly equipped, trained, and had the good sense and experience to do the right thing in a dangerous situation.

Those firefighters worked as a team, with outstanding "unit cohesion" as the military calls it. Sadly, this cohesion, or even the grounds to foster it, seemed to be sorely lacking in the original article's description. I don't know if the TSA fosters unit cohesion now or not, but if they don't, they may well benefit by doing so.

Davi OttenheimerJuly 30, 2006 9:19 PM

"I regret your friend's loss. My experience is the opposite. I know several people whose lives were saved by volunteer firefighters, who had been properly equipped, trained, and had the good sense and experience to do the right thing in a dangerous situation."

Well, there you go. Somewhere there might be a TSA unit with great unit cohesion stopping dangerous articles and nabbing potential hijackers. Maybe you just haven't met them yet. But if you do, will that satisfy you that the system as a whole is working to an acceptable level?

"I've seen better-trained volunteer fire departments than much of what TSA passes off as security. I have more faith that one of those volunteer firemen would be able to put out a fire or rescue a person than that any of the screeners, supervisors, or admins would know what to do in a real security situation."

Ok, I was trying to understand if you could make an apples to apples conclusion. I'm not putting words in your mouth when I ask if you realize that apples are not oranges.

I see that you know a very particular volunteer fireman or firemen who you think better able to handle a fire than *any* TSA security screener. Great, fires and screening. I know an elite sea rescue unit that could out jump and swim TSA agents.

Maybe we can put your volunteer firemen up against my special forces divers at the annual "who's better than the TSA" competition.

So, I think the point is not whether we should celebrate the heros, but whether we can define an acceptable standard and figure out how to achieve a higher overall average? Do you have a suggestion for how the volunteer fireman system would improve TSA screening, or is your advice just that the TSA needs better training and bigger incentives?

John QJuly 31, 2006 1:10 AM

>Do you have a suggestion for how the volunteer fireman system would improve TSA screening, or is your advice just that the TSA needs better training and bigger incentives?

I'd rather hear your plan for how the TSA can define an acceptable standard and achieve a higher overall average. I'd be shocked if it didn't have something to do with training and incentives.

John QJuly 31, 2006 2:10 AM

@Davi Ottenheimer

I really don't understand this.

I went back and read your other blog posts on various topics. On the whole, they're reasonable and thoughtful.

I also reviewed my posts and other replies on this topic, and until I mentioned volunteer firefighters, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Then as soon as I mention volunteer firefighters, you go ballistic and sarcastic.

I don't see how anything else I could write can explain or clarify what I've already written, because I think it's already clear enough as it is. You may draw your own conclusions from this, but I think you have some personal issues about volunteer firefighters. I apologize if my mention of this has angered you in some unexpected way.

My participation in this topic is ended.

Davi OttenheimerJuly 31, 2006 3:15 AM

"I really don't understand this."

Sorry to confuse. Seems to me that you said the TSA aren't any better than volunteer firemen when it comes to security:

"I have more faith that one of those volunteer firemen would be able to put out a fire or rescue a person than that any of the screeners, supervisors, or admins would know what to do in a real security situation."

So I simply wanted to a) confirm that on the whole volunteer firemen are all that you claim b) understand why the TSA aren't or can't achieve the same. Unfortunately you appear to have taken my probing/questioning personally, so I apologize. My issue is not with you or volunteer firefighters, just with the logic you presented. I certainly wouldn't say I've gone ballistic, especially since the topic started on gun dection (pun intended) and for some reason we're discussing fighting fires.

pigletJuly 31, 2006 9:47 AM

Re "longstanding policy"

Here is Bruce Schneier citing Robert Page about the causes of (mainly islamist) terrorism: http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2005/07/...

"The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank, every major suicide-terrorist campaign -- over 95 percent of all the incidents -- has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw."

VeritasAugust 1, 2006 9:14 PM

A couple of summers ago, my wife and I took our daughter to the Portland Jetport (where Mohammad Atta started out on the morning of 9-11). She was going to Japan for a month and this was her first plane ride as a teenager so I decided to take a series of pictures starting with our arrival at the airport. At that time, TSA had X-ray machines set up at the baggage check-in area with a number of personnel. They became so flustered that I was taking pictures of them that I thought a couple of them were going to stroke out. This resulted in them making numerous mistakes (or perhaps they would make them anyway). It was really funny. Since that time, I have developed the habit of taking my digital camera any place I go. Golly, do cops HATE having their pictures taken when you don't first ask them to pose because you want a picture of a real police hero for Aunt Millie!

coopAugust 4, 2006 4:39 PM

Several years ago, I was traveling to Seattle to do a network job as well as visit my then girlfriend.

In my carry on bag, I had a spool of network wire. All my network wiring tools.

I also had a vacumn cleaner metal tube, because my girlfriend had gotten a vacumn cleaner that was missing it and I happened to have one from my old broken vacumn in my garrage.

So I go through x-ray, expecting them to pull guns, and totally strip search me etc.

NOPE. they passed me through without a second look. Did not even open the bags.....

If my bag did not look like it was full of bomb making stuff, NOTHING did.

If I was not late for the plane I would of complained. But I see from this, it was likely to not or made a difference and probably caused me grief.

such is life!

OutsiderAugust 10, 2006 11:16 AM

It seems to me that the real issue is that we took the crimminals out of airport security. We know they can spot the crimminal elements(as they know them personally) and can identify the weapons(because they use them).

Years ago banks hired safe crackers to beef up security! Shouldn't we hire crimminals to beef up our own security?

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