More dogs working air, rail security

(The following article by Thomas Frank was posted on the USA Today website on February 19.)

WASHINGTON -- More bomb-sniffing dogs than ever are patrolling the nation’s airports and rail stations, and more are likely on the way as the federal government tries to blanket the nation’s transportation hubs with highly visible security.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) plans to add 45 dogs next year, primarily to subway and rail systems and also to the few large airports that don’t have them.

There are now 420 TSA-trained dogs patrolling 75 of the nation’s largest airports and 13 major transit systems. On Sept. 11, 2001, there were 174 dogs in 39 airports, according to TSA.

The TSA wants to make canine teams so prevalent in transit hubs that suicide bombers would believe they’d be caught before they could strike. “They have phenomenal deterrent value,” said Earl Morris, deputy chief of TSA’s office of security operations. “We deploy them so people know that they’re there.”

Dogs also can project a forceful image that reassures travelers. “For the public, they convey the message that security is happening,” Tom Farmer, head of TSA’s mass-transit division, told a recent rail-security conference. “They look good. They’re imposing. They inspire fear about what the dogs can detect.”

William Morange, security director for New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said bomb-sniffing dogs “are probably the best technology out there.”

The dogs do have their limits, and some experts question their effectiveness.

A Homeland Security Department test last year in Atlanta’s subway system found that dogs grew tired after 45 minutes and needed air flow to pick up the scent of explosives.

“Dogs are relatively expensive, a lot of training is required, and there’s a very limited duration that they can work,” said Geoffrey Barrall, a chemist who led a group at General Electric that developed airport screening machines. “When they get tired, you usually have no way of knowing.”

Homeland security analyst Matthew Farr of the Frost & Sullivan consulting firm said dogs “don’t have enough of a presence to really be a deterrent. There’s a lot of room to expand their use.”

The TSA uses German shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Vizslas, and trains them at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Some dogs are bred there, though most are bought from European breeders. The cost of housing a dog for a year and training it and a handler for 10 weeks is $25,000.

The TSA gives the dogs to airport and transit police, paying $40,000 to $50,000 a year for expenses and part of the handler’s salary. Dogs work 10-12 years.

The TSA wants to increase spending on dogs from $27 million to $30.5 million next year, using the extra money to supply more rail systems.

Transit agencies like using dogs but worry about devoting a full-time officer to one, said Greg Hull, security director for the American Public Transportation Association. “There’s a cost involved,” Hull said.

In airports, dogs sniff cargo, luggage, passengers and planes. In rail stations, they focus on passengers and their bags.

Morris, the TSA official, acknowledges that dogs have shortcomings. “Everything has limitations,” he said. “That’s why we build so many security systems.”

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

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