In 1998, the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) made a significant amendment to Document 30, the common basic standards of aviation security. It stipulated that checked bags should be controlled by ‘an E.D.S.’. However, the amendment lacked a number of crucial details. For example, it mentioned that airports should screen 25% of baggage, but failed to specify whether this should be the luggage of one flight in four, or one bag in four. Also, perhaps most importantly, the amendment failed to give a definition of an ‘E.D.S.’ and therefore did not propose a method of screening.
The aviation industry therefore saw a number of different regulations being implemented internationally in order to satisfy this rather vague requirement, with many opting to play it safe by imposing explosives screening on 100% of checked luggage. Needless to say, this increased the quantity of machines required to screen such vast luggage volumes, and therefore placed a significant financial burden on airports.
The security technology manufacturers saw this incomprehension of the new rules as an opportunity, and they started to use this fancy ‘E.D.S.’ name to market their machines, which could, more or less, detect explosives, albeit with a very high rate of false alarms.
Some leaders, like Invision and L3, established what is now a market of colossal proportions, and today companies like this are sold for hundreds of millions of dollars.
That was the beginning of the mistake; the manufacturers – and the industry – began to use ‘E.D.S.’ to refer to a machine.
In fact, the regulators had originally intended ‘E.D.S.’ to be a multi-faceted system that included machines, operators, security personnel, etc.
In addition to simply not understanding the intended meaning of ‘E.D.S.’, neither airports nor national regulators nor police knew how to build such a system, a chain whose strength depends on the integrity of each individual ‘link’. So, instead, everyone focused on this terrific and expensive machine that claimed to do the job for them.
This case of mistaken identity continues today, and the acronym ‘E.D.S.’ is still applied by all regulators to the machine used in the baggage handling system. In its latest regulations published on 29th February 2016, the EU perpetuates the error by referring to ‘Explosive Detection Systems (EDS) equipment’.
But, even though the technology is evolving significantly, and performance – especially quality of detection, quality of 3D pictures and rates of false alarms – is there, we are still dealing not with a system, but a machine.
The issue is best illustrated by metaphor:
If you buy a sports car (the machine) but you don’t have access to a road to drive on (the BHS, checkpoint), the car cannot be used. If you do not have a driver capable of driving that particular car, again, the car is useless. If you don’t have a team to maintain your sports car in the best condition, you can’t win the race.
So, like the sports car, an E.D.S. is a system of which the machine is a single part. In order to win the race, we must ensure that every part is operating at maximum efficiency, and not simply there to fulfil a regulation. The E.D.S. is a combination of several elements:
- Technology to assist us;
- An operator to analyse the deductions of the machine;
- A training team to train and manage the operator;
- A technical maintenance team to verify the quality of the machine;
- A clear and efficient procedure to manage all alarms, including the safe evacuation of suspected baggage; and finally,
- A team to detect all threats long before the baggage enters the machine.
This last point is, perhaps, the most important, but all too often the one that is forgotten. It was identified a long time ago, but the introduction of technology immediately supplanted the real target of the initiative taken to secure aviation.
In its resolution 2341 (2017), the United Nations Security Council ‘Calls upon Member States to consider developing or further improving their strategies for reducing risks to critical infrastructure from terrorist attacks, which should include, inter alia, assessing and raising awareness of the relevant risks, taking preparedness measures, including effective responses to such attacks, as well as promoting better interoperability in security and consequence management, and facilitating effective interaction of all stakeholders involved.’
It is clear that the target is not to put a machine in every airport; the UN is talking about strategy, measures, responses and management. We are talking about a system where explosive detection equipment with all its operators is just a very small part of the system.
We all hope that the latest proposed and route-specific implemented bans of electronic devices will not lead to yet another mistake. Today, regulators are working in collaboration with manufacturers on equipment that is also called ‘E.D.S.’, but with an extra subtitle: ‘category 3C3’. This equipment (not a system) will detect, among other thing, laptops carried inside carry-on bags. Again, this is just a machine, a solitary link, when what we need is a system with a lot of other elements that compose a security chain. Perhaps more importantly, we need a system that will manage more threats than just laptops.
An ‘Explosive Detection System’ should in fact be an all-encompassing ‘Aviation Threat Detection System’. Yes, it should include explosive detection equipment, but it should not be focused on that alone to the detriment of other concepts. We must also pay due attention to those other, often human, links in our chain, including the safety and operational staff who are trained to see and to think with security eyes and minds.
The author is Managing Director, SRDI SA, Luxembourg.