Can’t detect a bomb, but can still work in airport security
colin freeze From Monday’s Globe and Mail Published Sunday, Jan. 01, 2012 7:44PM EST
Circumstances always seem to conspire against David Williams, but the senior citizen was excited to launch his new career in security as a newly minted airport guard.
The retired bureaucrat was on the job only a month when al-Qaeda’s so-called “Underwear Bomber” struck. “It told me we have to be extra diligent,” he recalls thinking. “If the bad guys are getting better, we have to get better too.”
The failed Christmas Day, 2009, attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner did force thousands of North American airport guards to step up security. But for Mr. Williams, it meant being forced out of a job, after he was told to upgrade his skills at X-raying carry-on luggage.
After flunking several X-ray tests last year, the 65-year-old was told to turn in his uniform and go home. He proved demonstrably bad at identifying bombs.
When Mr. Williams sued for reinstatement, that too failed. But not before the legal action disclosed many records, ones shedding considerable light on precisely how he and Canada’s other 7,000 airport screening officers get graded.
The continuing threat of aviation terrorism means guards are gauged on their ability to pick out improvised explosive devices (or IEDs) from carry-on luggage. Records show they are also tested on their ability to spot hidden guns, knives, grenades in carry-on bags – and even martial-arts weapons, such as the deadly metal throwing stars associated with Japanese ninjas.
The file further reveals that sending a guard home for good is no easy thing in Canada. Despite Mr. Williams’s failed tests, he could be back at work within a few weeks. His poor tests resulted in the suspension of his screening credentials, not in his being fired.
“The length of the decertification will vary depending on the circumstances,” said spokesman Mathieu Larocque of the Canadian Air Transportation Security Authority. “It should also be noted that CATSA does not employ screening officers and therefore can’t suspend or terminate.”
In November, 2009, after being first certified by CATSA, Mr. Williams was hired by Aeroguard, a private corporation that screens passengers in Vancouver.
He had arrived on the job with no background whatsoever in security. “It was completely different than what I ever did in my life. I was a banker. I worked for Revenue Canada,” he explained, after The Globe and Mail called him to inquire about his suit. He said a series of circumstances left him in his 60s with no savings. “I’m one of those baby boomers who will work till 70.”
While Mr. Williams had no problems checking boarding cards, patting down passengers and screening them with a metal-detecting wand, his undoing was the aTIX 6040 – the machine used to X-ray unchecked luggage.
“I simply didn’t have enough exposure,” he said, arguing he never had much time to get good at using the device.
Records show that in one test, it took a tentative Mr. Williams 50 minutes to screen 10 carry-on bags. During that time, he failed to recognize a circuit board as a potential bomb component. (“He could see the battery, wires, and some orange mass, but couldn’t find a timer,” the assessment reads.) Putting that bag aside, he then called in a red alert on another, benign suitcase, mistaking a cellphone charger for a weapon.
Faced with these and other negative assessments, Mr. Williams never was put in charge of operating an X-ray machine on the job. He spent his off-work hours training, yet his test results did not get better.
Feeling unfairly treated, he insists that he is hardly the only screening officer to have ever overlooked a bomb or two. “I’ve been there when they’ve had IEDs go through, they missed it,” he said, referring to tests where, he said, actors paid to test security got through real lineups at Vancouver International with dud devices stashed in their luggage.
Last year, a federal review body yanked his screening certification for a period of 12 months starting in February. That means his suspension will be lifted within a couple of months, even though it’s not clear whether any private contractors will take a chance on re-hiring him.
Mr. Williams said he still retains his Top Secret clearance at airports but has been discouraged from re-applying for new jobs. Yet he feels he has no option but to try. His unemployment benefits have run out. A judge dismissed his lawsuit. And, he says, he could really use the $18 an hour.
“Maybe one of your readers will read this, feel sorry, call me up and give me a job,” he said.
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