TSA screeners lack training, supervision

Airport screeners are not getting all of the training they need, nor is their performance monitored on a regular basis, according to a new General Accounting Office report.

In a preliminary review of the federalized screener workforce, GAO found that the Transportation Security Administration has not deployed a "recurrent or supervisory training program to ensure that screeners are effectively trained and supervised." The report (GAO-03-1173) goes on to say that TSA "collects little information to measure screener performance in detecting threat objects."

GAO, however, gives the agency credit for taking some steps to address these areas, such as designing an annual retraining program and forging a partnership with the Agriculture Department Graduate School to develop a training course for supervisors.

"GAO says that we need to come up with more training programs. We are doing that," said TSA spokesman Nico Melendez. The agency is also deploying a three-part evaluation system for its screener workforce, according to spokesman Brian Turmail. About 28,000 screeners have completed two phases of the evaluation. Roughly 3 percent of the 50,000 screeners in the agency have been fired for failing to pass different portions of the test, Turmail said.

At the time of its review, GAO was not aware of the evaluation process, according to Cathleen Berrick, GAO's acting director of homeland security and justice issues. She said GAO will continue to monitor the situation as its investigation continues. The agency is scheduled to issue a more comprehensive report on airport screening in April.

Screeners in Boston, Washington, and Norfolk interviewed by Government Executive earlier this month said they have not received refresher training. They were also unclear about what system of measurement would be used to gauge their performance. GAO found similar results in its investigation.

GAO reported that TSA plans to deploy the first of six modules for recurring training in October. The remaining five are expected to be introduced next year.

To monitor performance, TSA sends out covert teams that try to sneak objects past passenger screeners. But the agency conducts far fewer such tests than the Federal Aviation Administration did when it was responsible for overseeing airport security, according to GAO. TSA officials said its tests are more rigorous.

Test results do not measure an individual screener's overall performance, but provide a "snapshot" of a screener's ability to detect a weapon at a specific time, TSA officials told GAO.

Classified portions of GAO's analysis suggest that weapons are still making their way past screeners, according to Gary Burns, a spokesman for Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee. Mica requested the investigation.

Some of the security breaches are the result of inadequate technology, Burns added. "The report illustrates that we need to be making better use of our resources," said Burns. "Do we want TSA to spend time managing a workforce or getting better technology?"

Mica had opposed federalizing the screener workforce in the first place. He helped win passage of a provision in the law creating TSA that permits airports to opt out of the federal program and hire private screeners starting in November 2004. TSA is required to develop a program describing how airports can exercise that flexibility.

"We want them to have the program ready soon, so airports can move quickly to the new system," said Burns. "The reality is that TSA has moved along like a lumbering bureaucracy and has been slow to adapt. We are concerned that TSA will not be ready to work with airports when the time comes."

Before developing the opt-out program, TSA wants to evaluate five airports involved in a pilot program allowing them to use private screeners. The airports were initially required to follow the same training and staffing models as federalized airports, but some of those restrictions have been lifted recently. TSA expects to hire a contractor in the next week to review performance at the five airports.

"I want to hear what [officials at airports in the pilot program] are thinking. What would they vary?" TSA Administrator James Loy said during a recent interview with Government Executive. "I want to be honest and objective about putting the data on the table so they can make good decisions."

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