Friday, January 18, 2002

Airports rely on dogs for security

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HEBRON — Less than a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, Kandy sat down.

        Normal for any other dog, yes. But when Kandy sits down, people pay attention — it's his way of signaling a bomb might be nearby.

[photo] Caesar uses his powerful nose to check baggage at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport for explosives and bomb-making material.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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        The German shepherd is no ordinary canine. He's part of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport Police Department's three-dog explosive-detection unit.

        The plane that caused this particular alert in October was clean. Local officials suspect Kandy caught a whiff of something left behind by an airline worker, perhaps a trace of gunpowder from someone who hunts, or vapors from flammable material left on a mechanic's clothes.

        But this display of sensitivity is why local and national aviation-security officials have so much faith in dogs — such as Kandy and her local counterparts Lord and Ceasar — as one way to meet today's federal deadline to scan all baggage for explosives.

        “A dog will do what many men can do in terms of searching,” said airport police Sgt. Barry Stegner, who oversees the unit of three dogs and their three human handlers. “And they can go much faster and more thoroughly than any human can do. I've seen them hit things from 100 feet away.”

        Local handlers and supervisors wouldn't discuss how today's deadline — part of a new aviation security law passed in response to the Sept. 11 attacks — would change procedures. But they said the deadline won't change the way they approach their job, and the same will hold true for their dogs.

    Today, all bags going onto commercial airlines will be screened in one of four ways for explosives. Here are some tips for travelers, who could see delays as airlines impose their new security schemes:
    • Arrive at the airport at least two hours ahead of takeoff. Delta Air Lines passengers can check the status of their flight and even estimated security wait times at most airports at, or 800-221-1212.
    • Delta is no longer accepting checked baggage at either the curb or ticket counter less than 30 minutes before takeoff.
    • Beginning today, Delta passengers must declare at check-in whether they will be trying to fly stand-by for a flight other than the one they hold a ticket for.
    • Delta passengers are limited to two checked pieces of luggage, a single carry-on bag and a personal item such as a purse or briefcase. Without carry-ons, a passenger can check three bags.
    • The size of carry-ons allowed on Delta and Comair may vary.
    • Pack intelligently, and consider that a bag might be searched by hand. Firearms may be transported as checked baggage, but only if unloaded. A small amount of ammunition may also be packed in checked luggage, but other hazardous materials may not.
    For a list of banned substances, see
    • Don't carry on sports equipment such as ski poles, golf clubs or baseball bats.
    • Passengers must have a printed ticket and picture ID to get past security checkpoints. Delta SkyMiles members with no checked baggage can bypass the ticket counter at automated kiosks.
    • Leave gifts unwrapped. Airline personnel will open gifts if an X-ray cannot determine the contents.
   Sources: Delta Air Lines, FAA
        “We're always alert and looking for things, so I don't feel like it will be any different,” said Officer Tony Steimle, who handles Kandy.

        Still, the requirement will put even more pressure on the bomb-dog program nationwide, especially since these animals are listed by law as one of four ways airlines and airports can scan the bags.

        And while the controversial method known as bag-matching — when a passenger's luggage is not loaded until that passenger boards a flight — will be the primary way of meeting the requirement, dogs will also play a role.

        That's because Cincinnati doesn't have an explosive-detection machine; and hand searches are too cumbersome for an airport of this size.

        “Yes, we will be busier than we already are,” said Dave Kontny, manager of the Federal Aviation Administration's nationwide canine and explosives program. “And we're already quite busy. But we will have a heightened role, although the public may or may not see that because so much of what we do is behind the scenes.”

        With the deadline for installing electronic bomb-detection systems looming by year's end, the FAA is seeking to expand the dog program as well.

        There are currently 190 trained dogs at 40 airports, and each dog has a corresponding handler. The FAA hopes to add enough dogs to have 300 teams working the nation's 80 busiest airports. In addition, the agency has begun its own breeding program.

        The dogs can pick up a trace of explosive as small as eight parts per billion, which Mr. Kontny likened to finding a single grain of sand on an entire beach. And dogs are constantly trained to pick up new scents, based on the latest intelligence as to which substances terrorists may be using.

        Mr. Kontny said that in many ways, dogs such as Kandy, Ceasar and Lord are preferable to machines.

        “The dogs are one of the few methods we have that will go to the source of the odor,” Mr. Kontny said. “With the machines, you might get a positive reading, but you may not know where it came from. Another advantage is mobility — you can't move one of these big machines around.”

[photo] Lord, with Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport Police Officer Todd Streitenberger, checks a phone bank for explosives.
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        Mr. Kontny also dismissed the notion that dogs can smell for only 20 minutes to an hour. The length of duty, he said, depends on each animal and its environment.

        Hot conditions might limit effectiveness, for example, since dogs need to pant to keep cool, “but we train in that weather, so they get used to it,” he said.

        There is no set pattern for breaks, handlers say, although the animals do get them during a standard eight-hour shift. The biggest challenge is keeping the dogs interested in the task at hand.

        One way handlers do that is to perform periodic blind tests — with either FAA officials or Sgt. Stegner putting substances in different locations to see if the dogs pick up the scents, and testing the officers' response. The FAA performed such a “short notice” test in a public area late last year, causing a small part of the airport to be evacuated when the dog picked up the scent and its handler followed procedure.

        “This is a game to them, and you have to keep them from getting bored,” said airport police Officer Todd Streitenberger, who handles Lord. “They're animals, and they need breaks, just like humans need breaks. But I've seen animals go several hours straight without stopping.”

        Still, critics say there aren't enough dogs to really make a dent in the overwhelming task created by the new baggage-scanning requirement.

        “And there are always ways around these things,” said Juval Aviv, CEO of the New York security firm Interfor Inc., and the former head of security for Israel's El Al airlines, considered the most secure in the world. “The terrorists know how to hermetically seal things to protect against the dogs.”

        But the local officers trust their canine partners implicitly, saying that if one of the dogs smells something, there is always something worth investigating.

        Sgt. Stegner, who has been a part of the program since it began under FAA guidelines in 1990, says the dogs have never found an actual bomb locally, although components have been discovered.


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