Miami Int'l Adds New Layers to Employee Screening Checkpoint

Ronnie Garrett
Published in: 

As the federal government considers getting tougher on employee screening at U.S. airports, Miami International (MIA) is already exploring ways to make that happen. Its strategy? Deploying familiar technologies traditionally used to screen passengers and checked baggage. 

MIA recently completed a six-month pilot to test advanced X-ray equipment and trace explosives detection at one of its five employee screening checkpoints. Airport execs are optimistic, as the changes are providing additional security measures without hampering throughput. Some, in fact, predict that MIA will serve as a role model for other airports looking to improve awareness of insider threats at their locations. 

"What we are doing voluntarily in Miami will become incrementally, but increasingly, required, based on new federal rules and regulations," says Mark Hatfield, director of Public Safety and Security for the Miami-Dade County Aviation Department. "I don't think the open swinging door to secure areas, with a swipe-and-go card, is going to be the norm in the future-especially if the terrorist threat profile continues to increase rather than decrease." 

Project: Employee Screening Checkpoint Improvements
Location: Miami Int'l Airport
Airport Operator: Miami-Dade County Aviation Dept.
Strategy: Adding advanced X-ray technology & trace explosives detection 
Technology Provider: Smiths Detection
Equipment: HI-SCAN 6040aTiX Heiman X-ray Inspection System; IONSCAN 600
Results: Improved security; no adverse effects on throughput 

Hatfield's predictions recently came one step closer to fruition when the Aviation Employee Screening and Security Enhancement Act, aimed at closing security loopholes in current systems, moved to the U.S. Senate for final approval. If it passes, the new legislation would require TSA to submit a cost and feasibility study within 180 days for a plan requiring physical screening of all airport employees with access to secure areas. 

As former deputy administrator for the Department of Homeland Security-TSA, Hatfield is well aware that just one worker with secure-side credentials can cause immeasurable problems, and MIA has about 35,000 such employees that serve 44.6 million passengers annually.  

"It is possible for a bad actor to exist among airport employees, and for that bad actor to gain access to sensitive areas of the airport, aircraft, bags and cargo placed on the aircraft," he explains. "That is why we have to train our focus on insider threats."

Leading the Charge
While MIA presses ahead testing improvements to its employee screening system, the industry as a whole is under scrutiny. In 2015, a Wall Street Journal article pointed out that nearly 
1 million employees at more than 450 U.S. airports with passenger screening checkpoints can use their credentials to access secure areas with little or no additional screening. A February 2017 report from a House Homeland Security subcommittee expressed similar concerns, noting that most airports have not implemented "full employee screening." The subcommittee calls for wider use of biometric controls at employee checkpoints and better information sharing between law enforcement and national security agencies to improve screening of individuals with access to secure areas.

Though the congressional report identifies several systemic flaws, MIA has been ahead of the employee screening curve for some time. Its recent pilot project builds on a program that is more than 20 years old-predating post-9/11 security changes by years. 

MIA launched its program to screen 100% of employees with secure identification display area (SIDA) access in the late 1990s. In addition to reducing the number of access points available to badge holders, the airport also installed metal detectors and standard X-ray machines to bolster employee screening. 

"The genesis of this was a crime-fighting activity," explains Hatfield. "[At the time,] there was a lot of theft and smuggling of drugs, money and other contraband. Airport officials decided they needed to get control of that and clamp down on access opportunities."

Since 9/11, however, employee checkpoints have become increasingly important as anti-terrorism measures as well. That prompted the airport to take a second look at its existing system and partner with Smiths Detection to make further improvements.  

Aided by Technology
Luke Olsen, director of sales for the security detection device manufacturer, encourages airports to draw from the procedures and technologies they use for screening passengers. He notes that the threat items-explosives, firearms, knives, blunt objects, narcotics-are not that different between the two populations, but employee screening systems need to allow for special circumstances, such as mechanics or technicians bringing work tools into secure areas.  

Olsen considers MIA a thought leader in employee screening and praises it for being proactive about seeking out improvements to mitigate insider threats without impeding the flow of legitimate work items and personnel. "They wanted to know what technology could do to assist their mission, and Smiths Detection stepped up to help them," he says. 

Though most U.S. airports already scrutinize employees through background checks and use access control systems to manage their movement, MIA realized that such measures don't provide the same level of deterrence that screening equipment affords, explains Olsen.

"Technology folds very well into the operation we already have in place, which requires all employees going into controlled areas to be subject to daily screening as well as identity screening," says Hatfield. "I was very quick to volunteer the operation here at MIA to be a proving ground to test new security equipment for this very reason." 

The resulting pilot leverages two separate technologies: multi-view X-ray machines and trace explosives detection. The airport was particularly intent on assessing how new measures would affect checkpoint throughput, notes Hatfield. 

A HI-SCAN 6040aTiX Heiman X-ray Inspection System from Smiths Detection replaced the single-view X-ray unit that had previously been used. The new equipment captures four views of each item sent for scanning and presents two of them to operators for review. Additional views of scanned items help screeners discern items in bags, particularly guns or explosives, explains Olsen.

The equipment also provides automated detection of solid and liquid explosives. Having four views provides a three-dimensional model of the image to calculate density, atomic measurement or material properties for items inside bags. "Those properties help us determine if an item is potentially an explosive device," he explains. "If the algorithm determines that an item inside the bag matches the characteristics of an explosive or closely resembles the characteristics of an explosive item, then it will draw a box around that item to indicate that the operator should take a closer look." 

The company's IONSCAN 600 adds yet another layer of security by analyzing samples of swabs collected from employees' hands or bags for microscopic evidence of explosives-a technology that has been used for checked baggage and passenger screening since 9/11. "It will detect and identify material in very minute amounts," comments Olsen. 

According to Hatfield, MIA is the first U.S. airport to leverage trace explosives detection at an employee checkpoint. Typically, the high price tag of advanced technologies is an impediment, he explains: "We don't have the budget to operate and staff the level of screening the TSA does at passenger screening checkpoints. For this reason, we have always had a basically equipped set up using older generation X-ray machines that are capable but not to the level of the Smiths Detection technology we used in the pilot." 

All of the technology that was added was essentially plug-and-play, he adds. The new multi-view X-ray machine has a slightly larger footprint than the previous single-view machine, but was placed in an area that had extra space available. The trace explosives device is essentially a tabletop unit that requires little space. "There was minimal impact to the checkpoint, and very minimal requirements in terms of technology to accommodate it," Hatfield reports. 
Smiths Detection welcomed the chance to partner with MIA on the pilot because the airport already had a good baseline screening operation, says Olsen. "A lot of airports are not doing any screening with X-ray or trace technology, and so the benefit of working with an airport that was already doing it is [that] we had a good sense of what their throughput was," he explains. "We were able to get a good sense of how these technologies could be applied and what their impact on throughput would be." 

The pilot also proved to be mutually beneficial. "We learned as much about how to best optimize our equipment for this type of process as the airport learned about how they could improve their security capabilities," he reflects. 

New Equipment, New Processes
Although MIA's new equipment was plug-and-play from a technology standpoint, it required adjustments to human elements of the system. "We had to train contract security personnel in how to apply and use this technology," says Hatfield.

The airport did not want to clog the pilot checkpoint or restrict any access points by deploying such "highly sensitive, highly capable new technologies," he adds.
The airport staffs the checkpoint with two to three people, depending on the time of day. Hatfield reports that the processing speed and throughput at the pilot checkpoint has remained about the same since the new equipment was installed, and has possibly improved at times.

Given the airport's enhanced ability to detect items such as improvised explosive devices and other insider threats, it developed and rehearsed protocols for responding to alarms. "We don't have nearly as sophisticated a process as the TSA or as many options in resolving an alarm, so we needed to put those in place," explains Hatfield. 

"We had to strategize with our police force," he adds. "The Miami-Dade Police Department is the primary responder if a threat is discovered." 

Next Steps 
Given the results of the pilot program, MIA is considering the possibility of equipping all five of its employee checkpoints with new screening technology. But that that won't happen immediately, specifies Hatfield. 

"We are exploring next steps with [Smiths Detection], and I think that we will extend the initial pilot until we firm up our longer-range plans," he says. 

The airport is tag-teaming its checkpoint project with a larger identity/background screening initiative. MIA will be one of the first airports in the nation to be connected to a perpetual employee vetting system called Rap Back, which the FBI developed with TSA. 

Currently, employees must pass an initial security threat assessment to receive a badge that grants them access to secure areas. The process includes background screening for criminal history, fingerprint and name checks, and a TSA threat assessment on the database side. Once initial assessments are complete, employee profiles are usually not checked again until they come up for annual badge renewal. As an extra measure, however, MIA randomly selects a few hundred employees to re-run through the criminal database every month. 

With Rap Back, this type of screening will happen almost continuously. "It will occur every 24 hours, so that if there is a known event involving [an employee], it's going to come up," Hatfield says. "With 24-hour revetting against all of the major criminal databases, if an individual has been arrested or a warrant has been issued, or they have been convicted of a crime, it's not going to wait until badge renewal time or a random revetting of their name. It's going to pop up in a 24-hour window."

Together with recent employee checkpoint improvements, tougher background screening is helping MIA to reduce insider threats at its facility and pave the way for others to do the same. 


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