X-ray: effective training for screeners

Since we introduced X-ray as a screening tool, the ways in which we use it have evolved. Some changes have been subtle, some less so. Training has to keep pace with the changes in the equipment and its use. Paul Quellin discusses approaches to X-ray training and highlights some considerations which need to be taken into account if one is to create an effective, knowledgeable and motivated team of operators.

From early fluoroscopes, flat array, monochrome conveyorised X-rays to multi-view, high-resolution X-rays, Computed Tomography and beyond. Pausing for a moment, it does seem we have made progress and whilst, perhaps, the pace isn’t always as quick as we might like, X-ray screening continues to evolve.
Changes in the X-ray equipment we use has to be reflected in the training we provide. Whilst that seems straightforward, we always need to be mindful of how changes to the X-ray equipment might affect the behaviour of the operators. Back in the mists of time, the industry changed from monochrome-only X-ray equipment to multi-energy colour systems. Colour had to be better, didn’t it? It seemed obvious to me as a trainer and X-ray enthusiast, but convincing some existing screeners wasn’t actually so easy. Whether they be cars, motorcycles or X-ray systems, people develop a familiarity with machines. Indeed, that familiarity may also become a sort of fondness…even for a baggage screening system.
With the roll out of ECAC Standard 2 compatible hold baggage screening X-ray equipment in Europe, many operators found themselves sat at new workstations with improved images. A number of experienced staff stated that the image quality on the new equipment wasn’t as good as their old machines. At one site, where we were providing training, we resorted to including an image from their previous system, alongside one from the Standard 2 equipment, for comparison. It seemed a stark contrast, and improvement, to me, but acceptance from the trainees was afforded somewhat begrudgingly. Perhaps the lesson was: Don’t expect screeners to immediately share your enthusiasm for new equipment… even if it is obviously better. It is worth remembering that when that same equipment becomes due for replacement some years hence, screeners may well respond in a similar way to its replacement. This may well be the case if your staff turnover rates are at low levels.

Aptitude for X-ray
Recruitment isn’t really the subject we are addressing here, but there is no denying it has to mesh well with training programmes. There is a choice for the employer here; either try to find those with ‘aptitude’ for X-ray and perhaps limit your choice, or assume that everyone has that ‘aptitude’ in there somewhere. I try to believe in the latter approach and accept it will just take longer to surface in some students. The aptitude we talk about relates to a number of factors, but spatial visualisation skills are key amongst them (mentally translating 2D shapes into actual objects). Some operations may require screeners who will only operate X-ray, but in most cases X-ray screening will be only one aspect of the work, so I would sound a note of caution about letting X-ray aptitude testing become a dominant factor in recruitment. Employment markets can fluctuate quite dramatically and perhaps you are finding that people aren’t queuing up for airport security jobs right now. One thing I am confident about is that all people can learn X-ray image interpretation skills and can reach a competent level eventually, but they just do so at markedly different rates. Of course trainers will happily spend as long as it takes, one to one tuition or whatever is needed, but the employer may have to be wary of the cost implications. You can’t always choose perfect students and if they come to you with very well developed spatial skills, frankly they are less likely to stay in aviation security. A lot has to be said for good all-rounders.

X-ray can be Fun
Though it is not something you are going to see stated in any regulator’s mandatory syllabus, getting students to become enthusiastic about X-ray image interpretation has to be a worthwhile objective in any training programme.