Airport K-9 teams operated or funded by the Transportation Security Administration failed their annual certification exams dozens of time between 2013 and 2015, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.
TSA records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed at least 50 certification failures at 10 major U.S. airports, including Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
The TSA, which secures air travel nationwide, has deployed hundreds of K-9 teams nationwide to detect the presence or use of potentially dangerous explosives. The agency said each of its teams undergoes intensive initial and annual certification training. But the records reviewed by the I-Team showed a larger number of the K-9 teams at Dulles Airport failed their annual exams than at other major airports.
(DISCLAIMER: NBC 5 Investigates in Dallas and the News4 I-Team obtained data from the Transportation Security Administration through the Freedom of Information Act concerning the agency’s explosive detection K-9s. TSA provided a list showing 52 instances where K-9 teams were decertified after failing certification tests from Jan. 1, 2013, to June 15, 2015, at 10 large U.S. airports. The map above was created using that data. Some K-9 teams that failed are managed by TSA and others by local airport police.)
The certification failures included K-9 teams that failed to detect test explosives during exams, according to the records. In other cases, K-9 teams reported detecting explosives that were not present, creating a false-positive result.
Between January 2013 and June 2015, there were 10 failures in the 26 annual certification tests given to the K-9 teams at Dulles, according to those records. The failure rate appeared significantly higher than at other airports. During the same time period, the K-9 teams at Reagan National Airport failed just one exam. At the nation’s busiest airport, Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson, there were two failures from 75 exams.
TSA declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview to discuss the findings. The agency also declined multiple requests to explain the wide disparity in failure rates. TSA instead issued a written statement to the I-Team, saying, “If a (K-9) team does not meet TSA’s rigorous guidelines, it is decertified and restricted from working. In such cases, the dog and handler are assigned to an expert trainer to help correct identified deficiencies and the team must successfully meet certification standards before returning to search duties. Dog teams that are unable to return to TSA’s high standards are subject to removal.”
Homeland security experts said the exam failures could indicate some teams are neglecting some aspect of their training.
“The less training that occurs, the more the failure rate is going to go up,” aviation security analyst Jeff Price said.
“Most of the time the failures are occurring is when the dog-handler team is not keeping up with the training,” he added. “That’s where you’re going to see those kinds of failure rates.”
Former agency administrator Chad Wolf said the K-9 program is a popular and important one for TSA, but only one of several safeguards the agency uses to protect air travel. He said the K-9s are a supplement to the agency’s baggage checking equipment, behavioral detection officers and passenger checkpoints.
“If you’re TSA, you want a large tool box,” Wolf said. “You want to be able to draw upon a variety of different security measures. When you’re protecting the airport or you’re looking at airline security, the K-9 program is a tool in the tool box.”
In its statement to the I-Team, the TSA said, “We are very proud of our K-9 teams and their enormous contribution to protecting our transportation systems. Our K-9 teams are highly effective and undergo an intensive initial certification and annual recertification process. To ensure a high level of performance and consistency, we routinely test and retrain our K-9 teams to ensure they maintain a superior ability to detect explosives and to adapt to evolving airport environments. If they don’t meet our high standard of performance we send them for retraining.”
TSA is not the only agency operating K-9 teams at Dulles International and Reagan National airports. Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Police also run 12 K-9 teams to help secure the airports. The agency declined to disclose how many of its K-9 teams have failed certification tests. A spokesman said all 12 of those teams are currently certified and have demonstrated proficiency in explosive detection.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.