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The Transportation Security Administration has the unenviable task of keeping up to 2 million air travelers a day safe from harm. But again and again, government inspectors have found holes in the TSA's screening process. Well, now the agency has opened a training academy to target those problems, and NPR's Brian Naylor visited it.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: On a chilly South Georgia afternoon, more than a hundred TSA trainees are huddled together on metal bleachers overlooking a field. They're watching an explosives instructor demonstrate what can happen if they don't do their job well.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Confined smokeless powder in three, two, one - all right, big difference, right? Remember we talked about pipe bombs? OK, that's why people use that for pipe bombs.
NAYLOR: There are more blasts of different explosives. The lesson for these new hires - that the consequences of a mistake are deadly. The TSA Academy was established in January. It's part of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center located at a sprawling former Air Force base near Brunswick, Ga. Some 96 federal agencies train here. Much of the TSA training takes place in classrooms where newly hired transportation security officers, or TSOs, learn how to identify different things the bad guys might try to sneak onto planes, like dangerous explosive igniters that look like everyday objects.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is called a chemical pencil. It's looks like an eyeliner pen. You push it - chemical reaction. This is the initiator on the end with the primary explosives. Push it down. It's got a short delay to it, and it detonates.
NAYLOR: There's also a full-scale mockup of a typical airport screening station with body scanners, metal detectors and x-ray machines where the trainees are taught how to interpret the images of objects inside the bags that passed through.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Do you see anything prohibited in that bag?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A dark mass.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Dark mass - OK, what do we call that - starts with a O.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Organic.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Opaque.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Opaque.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Opaque. You have an opaque item because you can't see through it, so you don't know what's on the other side of it, correct?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Correct.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: So zoom in on that.
NAYLOR: This is just a training simulation, but it illustrates the difficulty screeners have in the real world. That was made all too clear last June when reports revealed government auditors smuggled simulated explosives and weapons past TSA screeners in 67 out of 70 attempts. Peter Neffenger has been TSA administrator since July after a long career in the Coast Guard. He paints that failure as a wakeup call for the TSA.
PETER NEFFENGER: I think it was transformational for us. It allowed us to look at the systemic issues in the organization that might lead to those kinds of failures at the checkpoint.
NAYLOR: Issues like officers worrying more about keeping the line moving at checkpoints rather than giving passengers and bags thorough inspections. The TSA Academy is aimed at driving those points home and instilling a sense of professionalism among TSA officers. Neffenger is enthusiastic about the opportunity the academy presents.
NEFFENGER: They do real-world scenario-based training here, spend time in the classroom, come out to the lab. So it's very exciting for me to see it, to connect them to people who are doing the mission all across the country in a way that they never had a chance to before.
NAYLOR: One of the instructors at the TSA Academy is Shawn Weeks Freeman. She says today's training is a lot different from when she joined the agency in 2004 not long after its founding.
SHAWN WEEKS FREEMAN: When I joined, it was a laptop in a hotel room and then very much on-the-job training. You know, that's kind of how I learned.
NAYLOR: Weeks Freeman brings a very personal first-hand experience to the classroom. She was a flight attendant for Pan Am, and back in 1982, a bomb placed under a passenger seat went off in her plane on a flight from Japan to Honolulu, killing a Japanese teenager. That experience brought her to TSA in the first place and guides her work today.
WEEKS FREEMAN: I always bring that home to my students 'cause I say, you know, if it takes one-sixteenth of a second more, just give it a little more pressure. Give it one more look. Check it. Ask for somebody. Just one-sixteenth of a second - it could save your life.
NAYLOR: And that is the key lesson the TSA hopes its officers will learn at this academy - that the stakes are very high. Brian Naylor, NPR News.
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