Saturday, September 02, 2006

Problems With Puffers

The TSA is reconsidering the rollout of the puffers, which are bomb detection equipment that blows puffs of air and analyzes them for bomb residue and components.
The rollout of the devices, trace-detection portals, nicknamed puffers because they blow air while searching for explosives residue, had already been far behind schedule. Now the transportation agency is assessing whether to modify the puffers, upgrade them or wait until better devices are available.

“We are seeing some issues that we did not anticipate,” Randy Null, the agency’s chief technology officer, said last week.

The portal problems are part of a pattern in which the federal government has been unable to move bomb-detection technologies from the laboratory to the airport successfully. While workers at the Homeland Security Department laboratory here busily build bombs to test the cutting-edge equipment, the agency still relies largely on decidedly low-tech measures to confront the threat posed by explosives at airports, particularly at checkpoints.

Members of Congress and former domestic security officials blame poor management for stumbles in research, turf fights, staff turnover and underfinancing. Some initiatives have also faced opposition from the airlines or been slowed by bureaucratic snarls. Among the troubled or delayed efforts are the following:

¶The agency conducted tests last year that members of Congress and a former Homeland Security Department official called “disastrous” and “stupid” because they did not test the smaller, cheaper baggage-screening device in the way that it was intended to be used.

¶After spending years assessing a document scanner that would look for traces of explosives on paper held by a passenger, the agency now realizes it may be preferable to check a passenger’s hands. But no plan is in place to do so.

¶The agency gave grant money to an equipment maker to find a way to speed up explosives-detection machines that screen baggage and to reduce the frequency of false positives. Though the work was completed successfully a year ago, the agency has not made the necessary software upgrades on the hundreds of machines already in the nation’s airports.

“Continuing to follow the slow, jumbled and disconnected path taken by T.S.A. and Homeland Security in the last five years is no longer acceptable,” said Representative John L. Mica, Republican of Florida and chairman of a House panel that oversees aviation security. “The whole program has been haphazard. And the result is that still today we have a series of outdated technology that does little but search for metal or guns.”
These complaints and problems are yet another sign of problems with the TSA itself. Throwing money at the problem will not fix things. Hoping for a perfect solution is getting in the way of good solutions, that when combined with other detection and sceening tools, would provide improved coverage.

Mrs. Lawhawk and I both went through these detectors at the Salt Lake City airport last month, and we thought that this detection equipment should be expanded to other airports. As the Times article notes,"95 machines have been installed in 34 airports, far short of the 350 intended to be in place at 81 airports by the end of this year." The portals can't detect liquid explosives, and there are concerns about the reliability of the equipment to withstand heavy usage. That could help explain why the detectors aren't installed at JFK, which handles 20 million passengers annually, but at Salt Lake City, which handles a fraction of that amount.

Our safety is at stake with terrorists continuing to pursue attacks involving aircraft, and the federal government and state agencies entrusted with securing airports have not managed to put together an integrated security system that is reliable, effective, and will not impose a heavy burden on screeners or passengers.

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