After Sept. 11, 2001, and the transit bombings in Madrid and London, transportation modes remain high on the list of terrorist targets. As a result, transit agencies have kept a constant, watchful eye on their security policies and programs.
Many operations have implemented security cameras to track suspicious activity, while some have employed police K9 units for explosives detection. Still others are taking matters a step further, researching and piloting security-screening devices. In fact, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has administered pilot programs to test such technologies in larger authorities as part of its Transit and Rail Inspection Pilot initiative.
With the TSA programs came the unveiling of numerous security screening systems now available to transit agencies. Common designs include GE’s EntryScan3, which features Ion Trapped Mobility Spectrometer (ITMS) technology; Rapiscan Systems’ Rapiscan Secure 1000, featuring backscatter technology; and L3 Communications Security and Detection Systems’ MVT, which uses multi-view tomography to detect explosives.
Elements worth considering when choosing a screening system include: the type of screening needed, whether for passengers or baggage; ease of use for each system; cost efficiency; and how the device is likely to affect ridership.
The technology available for security screening runs the gamut in terms of variety. “There are walk-through metal detectors, handheld metal detectors, small X-ray machines, walk-through backscatter image systems, advanced explosives detection systems, etc.,” says Jim Herard, marketing manager for SureScan Corp., a company that worked with ENSCO Inc. to create the SureScan high-speed passenger screening device.
GE’s EntryScan3 uses ITMS technology to screen passengers. The EntryScan3 is a portal that blows small puffs of air on passengers when they step through. Particles given off by heat from the human body are collected in the air, and their molecules are negatively or positively charged to turn into ions. Once the molecules become ions, the detection system can then measure them to see if any match up to a list of elements present in explosives.
The entire process takes between 12 and 14 seconds, but the system costs approximately $130,000.
Another passenger screening device, the Rapiscan Secure 1000 from Rapiscan Systems, uses what’s called backscattering to detect explosives. When a passenger steps into the device, a beam is emitted that scatters back toward the system as it encounters objects.
The information is collected via high-resolution detectors and is translated into an image-by-image processing software. The operator can see the image on a monitor and can pull suspicious passengers aside for further screening if necessary. The Rapiscan Secure 1000 can complete a scan in eight seconds.
Qinetiq, based in Arlington, Va., has created a device that uses a millimeter wave image scanner to scan passengers. The scanner provides real-time images and can detect concealed objects on passengers.
The SureScan is a baggage-screening device that uses computed tomography technology similar to a CAT scan to detect explosives. The SureScan can process up to 1,000 bags an hour, with bags being fed through an integrated in-line system or a stand-alone system.
“We’ve combined the computed tomography capability with the use of multiple energies,” says Herard. “This allows us to search the bag’s contents in two ways, greatly reducing the number of false alarms.” The SureScan also has a built-in diagnostics program for easier maintenance and can be networked with multiple stations.
Herard says SureScan is also relatively cost efficient. “Our system uses very few expendable materials, mostly filters for the cooling air,” says Herard, “so electricity and operators are the only ongoing expenses.”
L-3 Communications Security and Detection Systems’ MVT uses similar detection technology. According to L-3 Communications, the MVT can scan up to 1,800 bags an hour, and the large size of the tunnel can accommodate oversized baggage. L-3 also offers handheld devices and mobile detectors.
‘Best’ systems are relative
Whether it’s a handheld or stationary system used for passenger or baggage screening, transit agencies must weigh the pros and cons of each technology available.
Frances Kernodle, president of Frances Kernodle and Associates, an Alexandria, Va.-based research and consulting firm, says agencies must perform a type of cost-benefit analysis to discover what security policies and devices will best fit them. Operations must weigh factors such as threat levels, costs and ridership. “Trying to maintain a healthy balance is challenging,” she says.
For example, one of the biggest benefits of some screening devices is their portability. Richard Maloney, director of public affairs for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) in Philadelphia, says the agency recently purchased two portable explosives detection devices. It has a specialized group, called the Special Operations Response Team, that is part of its transit police department and is employed to use theses devices.
Each team member has been trained by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. “They are fully up to date on all the current tactics,” Maloney says. “So they are fully trained for, we believe, any possible security concerns at the moment.”
It’s important for agencies to have a well-trained and knowledgeable staff to operate these types of new and sophisticated equipment. Moreover, with passenger screening systems, operators must know how the line of command works and be able to inform the correct people of any suspicious activity and hold the suspect until he or she can be properly investigated.
Drawbacks of screening
As is the case with most new technology, screening devices have their drawbacks. High costs, intrusions of privacy on riders (real or perceived), practicality of the technology and interference in the length of travel time are all legitimate concerns.
Cost is a deciding factor for many agencies, especially small operations, when it comes to investing in new technology. “The systems are expensive,” says Herrard. “[They can range anywhere] from tens of thousands of dollars for X-ray systems and trace detection systems, to over $1 million for a computed tomography-based explosive detection system.”
Kernodle says that, regardless of threat level, cash-strapped agencies are much more cautious to invest in this type of equipment. “Smaller and mid-sized agencies are still examining [screening technology] and finding out what fits their profile and, more importantly, what they can afford,” she says.
Another point of contention lies in how much these machines will interfere with travel time, as noted by Maloney of SEPTA.
“Our system covers 2,200 square miles with several hundred stations and thousands of vehicles, and it was designed more than 100 years ago to be open and accessible,” Maloney says. “I think this has become the mantra of the industry.”
Maloney says that SEPTA hopes the systems it purchased will help reduce the number of false alarms it receives. “Sometimes we can end up shutting down a portion of our system for an hour or so,” he says. “This particular equipment that we have, it’s portable and can be brought to the scene quickly by our own SEPTA transit police, and it has the capability of determining certain types of explosives with fairly good accuracy.”
From the perspective of the passenger, these devices pose a certain threat to privacy. X-ray devices and other imaging technologies can leave people feeling raw and exposed to machine operators.
The applicability of screening devices is a judgment call on the part of transit agencies. “I think we’ve learned a lot nationally since 9/11, and I think even more so since Madrid and London. So now individual agencies know what their vulnerabilities are,” Maloney says.