View Full Version : Airport security guard selection criteria!

Cyclic Hotline
28th Nov 2001, 05:30
U.S. Airport Task Starts With Staff

By MICHAEL MOSS The New York Times

As the government takes over the nation's screening system, experts say it will take more than higher salaries to turn the screening process around.

Long before Sept. 11, the federal government knew that the nation's system for screening airport baggage was bad and getting worse.

Statistics told a dispiriting story. In the late 1980's, when testers ran obvious images of bombs or guns through X-ray machines, screeners missed one in five. Their performance has only slipped since, though officials will not say how much: the figure has been designated sensitive security information.

But as the government takes over the nation's screening system from private hands, experts say it will take much more than the new airline-security law's promise of higher salaries to turn those numbers around.

Perhaps the most formidable challenge for the new Transportation Security Administration, the experts say, will be identifying 28,000 people with the right mix of psychological skills to stay focused, bag after mind-numbing bag, for that rare moment when a weapon rolls by.

The ideal recruit for the United States' newest national-security force, one expert says, might be an older widow with a knack for finding things lost in a cluttered room.

It might be a younger man who likes building model airplanes.

Or, as one airport security chief has found, it might be an emotionally scarred young woman who never learned to tell time but has an uncanny ability to concentrate.

"There seems to be this notion that if you pay people more you are going to get better people, but the issue is finding better people," said Douglas H. Harris, chairman of Anacapa Sciences, a company that designs systems to improve human performance.

"You don't have to be a really sharp-looking, smooth-talking person to do this kind of work," Mr. Harris added. "And as a matter of fact, there might be a negative correlation. There also is not any correlation with education, intelligence or social status."

With that in mind, the new agency is facing a mid-December deadline to come up with a test to screen the prospective screeners for some less traditional assets: concentration, stamina and the ability, as the psychologists say, to separate "signal from noise" to find obscure threats in cluttered bags.

There are also psychological types to avoid. Some people have an extreme form of tunnel vision, or "refrigerator blindness," said Michael B. Cantor, an aviation expert who has developed a test for screeners. "They'll stand there and say, `I can't see the ketchup.' "

At an airport security conference in Atlantic City starting on Tuesday, government scientists plan to discuss their effort to push competency testing beyond the current industry standard of making sure screeners can see colors and have enough dexterity to do pat-downs and use a metal-detector wand.

One test being developed would judge applicants' aptitude by having them pick objects out of an X-ray image. Another, called Threat Image Protection, would monitor workers already on the job by periodically slipping fake weapons into the X-ray images of real bags. Screeners would have seven seconds to react or get dinged for a miss.

While both exams are nearing completion, some aviation security experts worry that the new federal agency will be hard-pressed to meet the Congressional mandate of hiring all 28,000 screeners within a year.

"My fear is they will rush into hiring people," said Douglas R. Laird, an aviation security consultant.

Chet Lunner, a spokesman for Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, said the agency was committed to significant improvements in performance.

"The secretary's intention with this whole program is to improve the quality of everything from Day 1, including the type of tests people are administered," Mr. Lunner said.

Still, officials acknowledge that, at first, they may have to hire some less-than-ideal candidates. Screeners who do not work out, they note, can be fired under the new law.

Finding the right people, Mr. Cantor said, will require close attention to what he calls "the human factor."

In the few seconds that a bag passes through the X-ray machine, the screener must sift through a jumble of fuzzy images in search of a weapon that might be hidden or disassembled. The wrong viewing angle will turn a knife into a thin line.

At the same time, screeners get lulled into making mistakes. In all, even though millions of passengers pass through airport checkpoints each year, a mere 3,000 or so weapons are found annually. Screeners get accustomed to thinking "no" as bags go by, so when one does show up with a gun or knife the mind resists saying "yes."

At Reno/Tahoe International Airport, where the local manager of the airline security contractor, Charles Siegel, has won praise from Federal Aviation Administration officials, the numbing routine was plain to see even last Sunday as the Thanksgiving week crush began.

Robert Durham, a former construction worker, was in his third week on the job, and had already seen it all except a weapon. In a whole year, the Reno airport screeners do not collect more than 15 guns and knives.

Cellphones, hairdryers and curlers, umbrellas, keys, wine glasses and coins rolled by.

"When I first started, I didn't know what was what," Mr. Durham said. "I stopped the machine quite a bit. But now a lot is just repetitious."

He thought for a moment, and then said, "Someone came through with a bagpipe. That woke me up."

Mr. Cantor said 20 percent of the screeners accounted for 80 percent of the mistakes. So he designed a four-minute test to weed out the worst performers. The speed drill involves drawing lines between letters and numbers scattered over a page, sometimes obscured by a smattering of other images.

Mr. Cantor says his drill was never put to use, coming when the airlines were trimming passenger security work to cut costs. Now, it is one of the tests the F.A.A. is considering. Indeed, such tests are viewed as essential by other industries where people perform critical, if monotonous, inspection work, like automobile manufacturing.

Though some officials have suggested using the National Guard until permanent workers can be found, some experts said many may be overqualified.

"I came to the conclusion that some of the best screeners were elderly widows," said Orlo K. Steele, a former F.A.A. security chief. "They had great powers of concentration and weren't worried about having a date or going out that night for a beer."

In Reno, Mr. Siegel said he had had great luck with screeners who have emotional and physical disabilities. Two brothers who came from a wreck of a family had to be reminded to bathe and shave, but they were excellent screeners.

He says he gleaned his hiring technique from his days as a police officer in East Los Angeles. "I sit them down, and I look inside," he said.

Mr. Siegel has also given his 63 screeners nearly the amount of training that the new law specifies: 30 hours in the classroom and 60 on the job.

The Threat Image Protection program, now being perfected by the F.A.A., has already been installed at numerous airports. Among them is Reno, where Mr. Siegel said the program's data alerted him to trouble when a screener's score took a big dip. "I'd bring them in and have a talk and it would turn out there would some trouble at home or something," he said.

Since Sept. 11, screeners have been kept busy snatching up a growing list of items, like box cutters, which were not previously banned. That helps relieve the boredom. But the job's stress has also soared.

At the Reno airport, Ray Thompson, a former casino change-maker, slogged through another rotation on the X-ray machine.

One of the walkthrough metal detectors was down for repairs. A man worried about missing his flight pleaded to jump the 20-minute line. Then, when Mr. Thompson thought he spotted a box cutter, a colleague sniped, "This is going to be the buckle."

"This job," Mr. Thompson muttered. "It's intense."

His fate, like that of other screeners, is uncertain. The screeners are eligible to apply for the federal jobs, and in February are slated to become federal workers by default when the government acquires the airline contracts held by the private security firms.

To meet the law's other initiatives, the new agency is also racing to begin screening all checked baggage on domestic flights for explosives in January. Fewer than 10 percent of these bags are now screened, and a majority of the 420 airports do not have the X-ray machines to do the job. Until they can be manufactured, the law allows the government to use other means, like hand inspections.

The legislation will also put thousands of air marshals on commercial flights, require background checks on ground-support personnel, and tighten security at checkpoints and airport perimeters.

As for the screeners, no matter who does the job, the key to success is supervision, one expert says. Mr. Steele, the former F.A.A. security chief who is retired from the Marine Corps, said he would focus on hiring checkpoint crew bosses who will know when to rotate a tired screener, or fire one altogether. His model: John Wayne, as John Stryker, the sergeant in "Sands of Iwo Jima" who turns green recruits into soldiers.

"We need a Sergeant Stryker at every one of our checkpoints," he said. "That's where I would put my money."

28th Nov 2001, 06:52
Nice article that. Motivation is definitely one of the keys IMVHO. To illustrate, consider the following.

1. Mandate that baggage screeners travel on the same flight as the baggage they are screening. It might give sky marshalls something to do between flights, sort of a dual role thing. :D

2. The X-ray displays be angled so the queue of pax behind can watch people's little treasures go by. Probably get a lot of false hits from nervous types but what price safety. :eek:

These are really just meant to illustrate my point. The most routine & boring job in the world becomes a matter of high interest and concentration when your life depends on getting it right.

Just my $.02 as SLF

28th Nov 2001, 09:02
Let me add a few additional criteria

1. Able to make sure equipment is plugged in - this really happened at SEA this last weekend and caused hours of delays after National Guard troop asks "Shouldn't this be plugged in?"

2. Able to stop pax from jumping the line, running through checkpoint etc. It seems current security just allow people to run through checkpoint without trying to stop them - they are just to report such incidences and allow the "authorities" to stop scofflaws - again SEA and ATL where a quick grab by the collar would have prevented untold delays and high cost to delay, reroute equipment.