Training system to improve security

In an effort to tighten aviation security, the Federal Aviation Administration plans to install a standard computer-based training (CBT) system to better prepare personnel who operate security screening equipment at airports.

The FAA recently awarded an estimated $11 million contract to Safe Passage International Inc. to equip airport classrooms with PCs, training software and servers and to connect the equipment via a local-area network. By the end of the year, about 79 airports will have the CBT systems installed.

The system is capable of showing screeners thousands of images of different types of threats, such as components that could be used to make a bomb that could be taken onto an aircraft. "It makes the screeners realize that a bomb can look like anything," said Ron Polillo, the leader of the Security Equipment Integrated Product Team at the FAA. "It makes them aware that what they're looking for may not look like anything they have ever seen before." The CD-ROM-based software includes video and graphics. For example, a video shows an X-ray image of a bag, then of someone opening the bag and compares that to what is on the X-ray. The course "gets progressively advanced as screeners go through," Polillo said. "At each stage, screeners are given a test to see if they comprehend the lesson, and there is an overall test at the end. They must meet a certain level of performance."

Passengers will benefit from the system as well. "The biggest benefit to the flying public would be that the screeners will be much more prepared to perform day-to-day functions," said Michael Rooksby, product manager at Safe Passage. "One of the powers of the computer is [that] it can present learners with real-world simulations. Now [teachers] can move a student closer to being an expert in a shorter period of time. For airlines, it means doing more with less."

The FAA funded the research and development of the system, which was designed by Safe Passage and will be used by the airlines. "It's a way of showing how industry, the airlines and the FAA working together can develop technology that will" enhance security, Polillo said. "We're doing this to [increase] the efficiency and capability of screeners to detect threats at checkpoints."

The CBT module is part of a system called the Screener Proficiency Evaluation and Reporting System, developed by the FAA. SPEARS helps select, train, evaluate and monitor the performance of employees who operate the X-ray screening equipment. In the future, the FAA will add a capability that overlays an image of a bomb, for example, onto an X-ray of a bag to monitor how well screeners are performing.

In addition, the FAA will be able to gather training data and to create standard performance criteria that the average screener should meet. "We never had a standard training system out there to do this," Polillo said. The FAA already has deployed CBT systems at 19 airports for operational testing. Safe Passage will install the same systems at 60 additional airports by the end of the year.

Industry is a strong proponent of CBT, said Deborah McElroy, vice president of the Regional Airline Association. "We know that computer-based training does assist greatly in training screeners, as opposed to pure classroom work," she said. However, whether it will result in increased threat detection at airports still needs to be proven, she said.

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