Infrared Imaging Technology: closing the gap in employee screening at airports

The ability to screen people for a broad range of prohibited or restricted items, using a single technology, without the need for physical contact is certainly an attractive proposition. This is especially true if the solution does not use ionising radiation or pose any health risk. Infrared imaging technology might be the panacea and, as Bill Gately explains, it may be ideally suited to the needs of airport staff screening checkpoints.

Last December, two men were arrested and charged with operating a gun smuggling ring out of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Authorities say that one of the men accused was able to use his position as a baggage handler at the airport to bypass security. He handed carry-on bags, loaded with firearms, to the other accused, a former airline employee. That second employee would then transport the firearms on flights to New York. In total, they allegedly smuggled guns and ammunition on at least 20 flights between Atlanta and New York over a seven-month period last year.

The incident immediately raised concerns about gaps in employee screening. It has become clear that implementation of more stringent screening measures for workers with access to restricted areas at the nation’s airports is necessary. After all, if passengers are required to pass through rigorous screening to detect prohibited items, why, in the United States at least, are airport workers allowed to pass through a perimeter gate virtually unchecked? While the goal of the smuggling operation may have only been for financial gain, the outcome could have been vastly different if the alleged perpetrators had more violent intent.

An investigation by an Atlanta television station earlier this year found that more than 1,400 security badges used by workers at Hartsfield-Jackson were either lost or stolen between 2012 and 2014. This investigation demonstrates that airports must improve their security to not only prevent contraband smuggling but also to protect against the use of employee identification badges to gain access to airports’ restricted areas. Fortunately, the airport opened a new employee screening checkpoint earlier this month as part of an effort to improve its security programme.

However, based on preliminary media reports, it appears there has already been one major challenge to the initiative: according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, employees of Delta Air Lines, the airport’s largest operator, will not use the checkpoint. Instead, the airline will continue to merely conduct ‘spot checks’ at employee shuttle lots. Delta Air Lines claims it will deploy more extensive screening measures in the future. Ironically, the two men in the aforementioned gun smuggling plot were both former Delta employees

Although these incidents reveal inadequate security at Hartsfield-Jackson, it would be naive to believe that these types of issues are isolated to just one airport. Until recently, all that has been required for workers to clear security at most airports in the United States has been the presentation of an ID badge.

Some would argue that since 9/11, airports are inherently more secure than the majority of other facilities people travel through on a daily basis. Yet, the threat remains. So-called ‘lone wolf’ terrorists, many of whom having become radicalised through social media, and some of whom are currently being monitored closely by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, are numerous. However, despite the valiant efforts of government agencies, many of the plots planned by these radicals go undetected. There must be safeguards in place to prevent one of these lone wolf terrorists from gaining unfettered access to restricted areas at airports. The conundrum for airport security leaders is figuring out how to adequately screen their entire workforce in a way that is efficient, non-discriminatory and cost-effective.

The passenger screening methodologies employed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which are focused on high throughput and reducing traveller wait times, are very different than the airlines’ employee screening methodologies. In part, this is due to the fact that the number of workers entering an airport is much lower than that of passengers. Also, employees are staggered based on shift times, which also decreases the volume of those needing to be screened at any one time.

Metal detectors are the most common screening solution that organisations choose for personnel screening needs. However, metal detectors have limitations. First, as its name implies, a metal detector is designed to alert to the presence of metal — it cannot identify other materials, like plastics, ceramics, powders or other non-metallic materials that may be a security threat. Secondly, if metal is found on an individual, it may not be from a suspicious item or a deadly weapon; there are many innocuous items that are metal and not therefore dangerous. Thirdly, the method of identification is a beep or light, but does not indicate the type or size of item discovered.

Airports also employ visual inspection techniques to identify potential threats and acts of theft. This strategy involves stationing security personnel to identify potentially suspicious persons. It is unlikely that a person with negative intent will carry their weapon or explosive device noticeably protruding from their clothing, which makes detection of prohibited items carried on the person difficult. This approach can also lead to claims of racial profiling or discrimination. Additionally, if an individual has a weapon, they may opt to act immediately if confronted, eliminating the opportunity to initiate pre-emptive security measures.

New screening solutions are available today that help close the gap between these methods. A new solution being used in various markets leverages thermo-conductive infrared imaging technology. Already deployed in a wide variety of applications, such as retail distribution facilities, high value electronics manufacturing and secured facilities, this patented infrared imaging technology has been utilised to prevent theft and the smuggling of contraband by employees. Similarly, these imaging solutions can provide a great benefit to employee screening at airports.