Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Consistency questioned in time of enhanced pat downs
With the introduction of aggressive new pat down procedures and advanced imaging technology at airport checkpoints, executive and legislative watchdogs Tuesday questioned the adequacy of training in these procedures for screeners at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

TSA Administrator John Pistole appeared at a Senate hearing Tuesday afternoon, when he assured senators that TSA personnel receive training in the new pat down procedures, which critics have called invasive, to protect the privacy of air passengers. TSA screeners conduct the pat downs only with same-sex personnel and, if necessary, in private locations.

The Office of the Inspector General (IG) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also Tuesday released a report, Transportation Security Administration's Management of Its Screening Workforce Training Program Can Be Improved, calling into question whether the agency had done enough to ensure screeners receive thorough and consistent training.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, praised the IG report while urging TSA to implement its recommendations.

"In light of recent aviation security events and the new pat down process for screening passengers, training is more important than ever in both securing the aviation system and maintaining suitable privacy and customer service standards. Training is the critical lynchpin in an effective aviation security program. Without suitable training, technology and established screening processes are ineffective," Thompson said in a statement Tuesday.

TSA could improve the management of its screener training program by developing and documenting standard procedures for the evaluation of training results through testing, assigning on-the-job training responsibilities, and evaluating training needs, the IG report concluded.

The agency generally concurred with specific IG recommendations to improve its training program for transportation security officers (TSOs). Those recommendations included the documentation and implementation of a methodology to keep training current and relevant, the establishment of a formal on-the-job training program, and the deployment of more computers to airports for screeners to use for Web-based training.

The IG report also suggested that TSA study the amount of time screeners require to meet training requirements.

Pistole provided a response, dated Sept. 30, that informed the IG office of TSA's plans to finalize documentation and implementation of centralized training methodology by the second quarter of fiscal 2011. TSA also has drafted a plan for on-the-job training with the goal of establishing qualified TSOs as training mentors, who would serve in that capacity for the minimum of one year. The agency will run a pilot program of the on-the-job training program in the second quarter of fiscal 2011 and open it up to all screeners in the third quarter if the pilot goes smoothly, Pistole said.

TSA would study the deployment of computer resources with the goal of providing more hardware to screeners by the third quarter of fiscal 2011, Pistole added. However, TSA would require several years to study Web-based training solutions before producing courseware for TSOs. The administrator also committed to studying the time screeners require for training, including travel time.

Centralized training has been slow to come to TSA, the IG report concluded. The agency set up a lead office for TSO training in 2006. But faced with staffing challenges and emerging threats, the designated lead, the Operational and Technical Training Division, did not actively assume those responsibilities until 2009, the IG report determined.

"Without a documented process for updating training based on screener performance data and changes in technology or equipment, the Transportation Security Administration may be missing opportunities to enhance its officers' skills and abilities," the IG report warned.

Presently, TSA offers a screening training program guided by specifications in the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (Public Law 107-71). The law requires TSOs to receive 40 hours of initial screening training and 60 hours of on-the-job training. Screeners receive remedial training when they fail an operational test and additional training on new technologies and procedures.

While Pistole generally agreed with the need to standardize, enhance, and extend these training requirements, he took issue with several specific characterizations of the state of TSA's training operations.

"TSA believes it is important to highlight, that while OIG does not believe that the documentation level is sufficient, TSA does in fact continually evaluate the logistical support elements of training to ensure that the resources needed, whether equipment or time allocated for training, are at an appropriate level," Pistole wrote in his response letter.

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