TSA revamps annual screener recertification tests

The Transportation Security Administration is testing and recertifying its workforce of about 45,000 airport passenger and baggage screeners.

The second annual screener recertification program began last month and will run through June 2005, according to Peter Marcello, TSA's recertification program manager. Under the program, screeners must prove their proficiency using X-ray and explosive detection machines, and perform a physical demonstration of passenger and baggage screening skills.

The agency spent months retooling the recertification program to avoid problems that plagued the first annual tests, which wrapped up in May, said Elizabeth Kolmstetter, TSA's acting assistant administrator for workforce performance and training.

Screeners have two chances to pass the recertification tests. Marcello and Kolmstetter said 99 percent of all screeners passed the first annual recertification tests. But many screeners did not pass until their second chance, causing TSA to realize discrepancies within the testing regime.

Government Executive first reported problems with the program, especially that screeners were being tested using different standard operating procedures, which Marcello and Kolmstetter acknowledged.

In an effort to standardize testing, TSA surveyed all federal security directors and training coordinators and sent teams to 21 airports across the country to interview screeners, supervisors and managers, Kolmstetter said.

"We put a lot of effort into this," Kolmstetter said. "We recognize that the changes in the SOPs, regardless of recertification, are causing [concerns]."

The agency also brought 40 employees to headquarters in Washington for a two-day work session focused on improving the testing program, Marcello added.

Kolmstetter said a big challenge for the testing program was that SOPs regularly change based on new threats and intelligence. In response, the recertification program this year allows screeners to pass tests in some cases using different SOPs. For example, TSA revised SOPs last month after two passenger airplanes in Russia were simultaneously blown up. Until Nov. 1, screeners can pass recertification tests by demonstrating proficiency on either new SOPs or previously accepted standards.

"In some cases, we accept two answers to one question," Marcello said.

TSA also renewed a contract with Lockheed Martin for $20 million to conduct the physical evaluation of screeners' passenger and baggage testing skills. Lockheed Martin evaluators also received additional training on SOPs.

Kolmstetter said TSA is pleased with how Lockheed Martin has carried out its recertification contract.

Still, some airport screeners remain skeptical about the testing program this time around.

The Metropolitan Airport Workers Association in New York City is concerned the tests might discriminate against workers with medical disabilities, said MAWA director of administration, Bob Marchetta. For example, MAWA is worried the tests might not be adjusted to accommodate workers with physical disabilities, causing them to fail and possibly be fired. Therefore, the organization is considering filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the tests, Marchetta said.

"If we think you're breaking the law, we have a right to ask you to prove that you're not," he said.

Ron Massey, a screener at Lansing Capital City Airport in Michigan, failed the recertification tests on both tries when he took them two weeks ago. He is now on administrative leave with pay, but faces losing his job. He said he was not told why he failed the tests on his first try.

"The problem that I have with the tests is they don't give you any results to let you know what to study," he said. "If I'm studying, you need to show me what I'm deficient in so I can make it work."

Kolmstetter and Marcello said screeners were not briefed on their test results so there would be no accusations of "training to the test."

Instead, screeners who fail the first round of tests are given a minimum of four hours of remedial training before they try again. "We have a very high second-time pass rate," Kolmstetter added.

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