A setback for airport bomb-sniffers

Bojar, a German shepherd, inspects a suitcase in training session at Philly International Airport.
Bojar, a German shepherd, inspects a suitcase in training session at Philly International Airport.
Posted: January 07, 2010

Terrorists, beware: Three once-proficient bomb-sniffing pooches who recently flunked their recertification tests in their field are roaming Philadelphia International Airport ready to deter your evil misdeeds.

By looking mean.

At least that's the goal while the Transportation Security Administration dogs, who remain on duty only as a visual deterrent, are in training before they and their handlers retake the exam. The TSA told airport officials that they expect that the pooches will be recertified by month's end, airport spokesman Mark Pesce said by e-mail last night.

The canines, whose ages, breeds and names were not known by officials interviewed, recently flunked the tests twice, according to U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.

"Because of our high standards, failures may occur in every test cycle and we have an established remediation program to get teams back into compliance," TSA spokesman Greg Soule said, referring to each dog and his handler.

Meanwhile, Brady asked for temporary relief in a letter dated Jan. 5 to Gale Rossides, acting administrator of the federal agency. Aside from the three dogs that failed the test, the airport has 10 other dogs that are certified by the TSA but handled by the Police Department. Those teams have taken over the three TSA teams' responsibility of screening air cargo, airport and TSA officials say.

Nonetheless, Brady wrote, Philadelphia "is one of the busiest airports and requires first-class security. I urge you to immediately replace the three dogs on duty at PHL with certified animals so that passengers and cargo flying out of our airport can do so safely."

The federal agency doesn't see it quite the same way.

"At this time, no," the TSA won't be sending replacement canines to Philadelphia, Soule said.

"Philadelphia International Airport has ample canine resources to meet security-mission requirements," Soule said, noting the airport's 10 remaining teams.

The not-so-quite banished TSA service dogs have been reassigned to "general deterrent" duty, according to Brady's spokeswoman, Karen Warrington.

That task includes roaming or running in the airport with their TSA handlers or sitting in a room with a subject of interest, she said.

Brady also criticized the TSA's lack of communication with the city and the airport. He found out about the canines' figurative "F" from TV news outlets.

No one in the Mayor's Office was notified either, said spokesman Douglas Oliver.

The TSA didn't inform airport officials that it had decertified the three pooches and their handlers until late yesterday afternoon, Pesce said.

"The real problem is with the TSA," Brady said.

"They don't coordinate. They don't share information. They can't be acting on their own, unilaterally."

There are 700 TSA-certified teams nationwide, and the majority are in partnership with local law enforcement.

The federal agency provides a dog and training at its canine center at Lackland Air Force Base, in Texas, and a $50,000 yearly stipend to the local law-enforcement agency in exchange for the team to spend the "vast majority" of its time in the airport.

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