Screening Performance: the correlation between screener motivation, threat level, and technological development

Security screening at airports is today an integrated and expected part of air travel that no-one really questions (unless the waiting times are too long). The components required to perform screening are – of course – screeners, screening technology equipment and passengers and staff. The security equipment used has evolved significantly and its performance has taken huge steps since the earliest times of screening. There are however two factors that remain unchanged: firstly, we, as human beings and our abilities and skills, and secondly, the fact that even the best screening equipment is limited to delivering information required for the screener to make a decision. All security critical decisions are ultimately made by the security officer. Screening performance relies as much today on the human factor as it did 50 years ago and on the ability and competency of the security officer to make the right decision. In this article Dan Larsson discusses what factors affect screener performance and how technology can have an effect on our ability to ensure that the tool remains sharp at all times.

A wise man or woman once said, “The human mind works in mysterious ways”. It is sometimes difficult to grasp just how complex these ways are. Because, deep down we are still humans that rely on instinct and natural reflexes to survive in the sometimes very challenging environments we live in. This is especially true in an unfamiliar environment, where we have the ability to instantly react to the unknown and, initiate the ‘flight’ or fight’ response. We also have an ability to diminish and disregard risks if the same ‘unknown’ were to appear in a familiar environment where we feel safe and comfortable. This is because the perception and assessment of risk always has been necessary for mankind to explore, learn, develop, and thrive. Those abilities and perceptions, still affect our decision-making abilities and choices in our everyday life. They also affect the way a screener regards the classification of an item in an X-ray image as potentially, dangerous, suspect or harmless. A screener who, for some reason, perceives the situation as dangerous, e. g. a high level of threat, is maybe more likely to find a dangerous object than the same screener who perceives the situation as calmer and more peaceful.

We will, for the foreseeable future, depend on the human mind as the final and ultimate tool in security screening. We therefore have to have a comprehensive understanding of the factors that influence the security screener and how they are influenced by their perception of risk, confidence in the security equipment, the working environment and, last but not least, the impact of management and leadership. Screener performance also depends on the environment he or she works in, with influencing variables including noise, lighting, temperature, working hours, etc. This article will however focus on factors that have an effect on the screeners’ understanding of risk in the assessment of screened objects and persons, and how the technology used can affect this.

The probability that a screener detects a certain dangerous object depends on four factors (apart from the object itself): ability, attitude, environment, and technical equipment. We shall refer to them as ‘Screener Performance Factors’. Ability, attitude, and environment change over time, whilst performance levels of technical equipment are more or less constant in the short term.

Screener Performance Factors
There is an interrelationship between screener performance factors. Understanding the technology used and its limitations is crucial to successful operational performance. The user/machine interface is further complicated by technology that, on one hand, can make the screener more alert and have confidence in that technology, but on the other hand ‘trust’ the technology too much.

Ability
This factor is dependent on recruitment, selection, and training. The task of being a security screener is the most demanding and difficult one you can find at an airport. Screening is an activity of industrial proportions. At our busiest airports, hundreds of thousands of passengers are screened every single day. There is a constant pressure to be effective, friendly, and not to take any risks. To find the right people to accomplish this task is a serious challenge. Testing and very thorough interviews together with a careful look at references are necessary. This can be difficult in an environment that sometimes has a high employee turnover rate, but in my experience, if you don’t get it right from the start, you will never get it right later.

Training is not just about obtaining the practical skills required. It also has to include the concept of risk in aviation and an understanding of how the human mind relates to risk. It has to promote a professional attitude to the risks involved.