The air cargo sector continues to be a primary target for terrorists. With billions of pounds of cargo transported nationwide each day and the growing prevalence of explosive threats, security vigilance is a constant priority throughout the industry. The TSA is currently pursuing updates to its Certified Cargo Screening Program to expand its use of Explosive Detection Canines screening.

To avoid carrier delays, cargo backlogs and transit time increases, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) currently allows screening at multiple points through the CCSP. The CCSP permits regulated air cargo entities to utilize x-rays, explosive trace detection, physical searches and searches by TSA-certified canines at individual facilities prior to shipment.

With an ongoing mission to protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure security of people and commerce, the TSA is working on expanding its internal capabilities to stay ahead of the exponentially growing threat of explosives. The Department of Homeland Security FY-17 Appropriations Bill has allocated $3.4 million for the establishment of a Third-Party Air Cargo Screening Program and the TSA is now charged to move forward with the development and rollout of a privatized Explosive Detection Canine (EDC) program: this means that bomb dogs owned, operated, and trained by the private sector and validated by the agency, will soon be permitted to screen cargo as part of an updated CCSP.

By all early indications, this proposed TSA program has elicited genuine interest and support within the industry. A TSA third-party EDC screening program would require stringent testing and certification specific to air cargo screening requirements: this would ensure that all EDC screening of air cargo is conducted only by teams that meet rigorous TSA standards, fully and efficiently address federal mandates, and are well equipped to protect the nation’s air transportation industry from national security threats.

Computers vs. Canines for Explosive Screening 

So, how does a canine stack up against other TSA-approved primary screening technologies? The robust technology used today for primary air cargo screening is effective and continues to evolve, with manufacturers introducing new TSA-accepted applications. However, even when compared to the latest gadgetry—and with the tens-of-billions spent on research and development—a properly imprinted and trained canine remains the most effective, safest and operationally efficient tool for cargo screening. Here are just a few of the distinctions that EDCs offer in the air cargo screening environment:

  • Unmatched Ability to Identify Explosive Odors

With an unparalleled sense of smell, bomb dogs have a unique ability to sniff out odors in parts-per-trillion. Canines also smell in layers, which allows them to recognize and discern an individual explosive ingredient even when that explosive is masked by other odors. The best EDCs are imprinted and trained on all five families of explosives, in addition to homemade explosives (HMEs) like TATP, HMTD, Potassium Chlorate, Ammonium Nitrate and Urea Nitrate—always live, pure and never “cocktailed” to ensure recognition accuracy in the field.

  • Expedient & Unobtrusive Explosive Screening 

As a practical matter, the modern technology used to screen large quantities of air cargo with the speed necessary to satisfy the worldwide supply chain simply does not exist—and may not exist for some time. A properly imprinted and trained EDC can screen a typical Unit Loading Device(ULD) in minutes, not hours, with minimized interruptions to business.

  • Full Container Screening Capabilities 

Canines allow for the effective screening of shipment types that may prove more challenging to screen using conventional technological methods. EDCs are one of the few tools to effectively screen entire pallets, containers or ULDs containing multiple types of goods without the need to break them down to individual components: this translates into considerable labor, operational and time efficiencies.

  • Operational Training Specificity 

While EDCs are a proven tool for addressing and preventing the threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), not just any canine will do. It is critical that the EDC deployed in an air cargo environment carries an imprint and training specificity for that deployment. Additionally, EDCs should receive operational training based on individual and specific loading protocols for a given deployment, which may include partial screening as cargo is loaded, full pallet screening or other unique requirements.

Simply put, there is no machine or technology application able to detect the presence of explosive materials in the same way as a canine. The value of an organization, its people, operations and facility is immeasurable: explosive detection canines are the best solution to safeguard—and embolden— this value.

Marc C. Murphy, Director of Air Cargo and Aviation, MSA Security