Answering criticism of explosive detection machines and K-9s

Americans love technology, but machines are expensive and not without their drawbacks so we must layer low- and high-tech bomb detection systems

Recent reports surrounding the Christmas day bomb attempt on a Northwest Airlines Flight from the Netherlands by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — paired with two subsequent events — have raised questions about detection devices, both K-9 and machine-based systems. The debate raging about whether or not to install airport body scanners (some are calling them “virtual strip searches”) is just one outcome of these three incidents.

In one of the subsequent cases, a K-9 alerted to a bag in Minneapolis which upon further inspection was found to contained no explosive compounds. None-the-less, the event shut down the terminal for some time, inconveniencing numerous travelers. In another case, a swab machine in California sounded an alarm for high explosives on a bag that ostensibly contained only jars of honey, once again causing terminal closure and passenger inconvenience.

When I typed “bomb dog reliability” into Google I found a number of popular press articles pointing fingers at seemingly unreliably canines.

Just because a dog alerts on a suitcase and no bomb is found doesn’t mean that the dog is incorrect. First, the incident may be considered “news” but it doesn’t make a statistical case. Second, laypeople with no understanding of the process by which detection dogs are trained would, seemingly reasonably, make such a determination. However, it is a false choice.

Here are some things to consider as this debate continues. This is my list — you should add your own ideas in the comments area below. This conversation has to be had.

1. No detection system is infallible. False positives and false negatives occur all the time. Two doctors with years of training can look at the same diagnostic X-ray and make two different diagnoses. That doesn’t mean we should abandon doctors as the vehicle for diagnosing medical conditions.

2. Machine detection devices for explosive detection often rely on human interpretation (X-rays now in use, for example). The human element can return both a false negative (missing a target device) or a false positive (causing an alert to a harmless device). A swab machine in California recently detected the presence of TNT and PETN but the bag contained only honey. TNT can have a yellow color. Honey is kind of close. Not a bad call to close things down. Better safe than sorry. Machines can make mistakes too.

3. Full body scanners (modern X-ray vision) can be easily defeated by hiding explosives in a body cavity. However, even in such a situation, residual odors are likely present for a dog to detect.

4. Explosives dogs are usually certified to perform at a more than 90 percent level of reliability. Perfection is attained in certification all the time, however, in a number of repeated trials, dogs will occasionally make a mistake. In most cases during certification, we penalize false negatives (missing a device) more highly than false positives (alerting when no device is present).

5. Explosives dogs are trained to detect chemical compounds, some of which have very closely related relatives in terms of their molecular structure that are completely harmless. For example, some grease compounds can contain nitrate ions that are harmless in a grease compound, but are deadly in a smokeless powder pipe bomb. Better to get a false positive and rule out anything harmful.

6. Many dogs will react to very low vapor pressures, or lingering odors. These are odors that are there but you can’t see the source. It’s like if I popped some popcorn in your house, then departed with the bag and are it outside. You will come home and smell popcorn, but there won’t be any for you to see. More to the point, suppose a person reloads their own deer hunting ammunition, and their suitcase is nearby, or they touch it after performing the reloading. Residual amounts of smokeless powder would be detected by a dog — they can detect in the range of parts per trillion (a detection limit no machine in existence can yet match) — however, there would be no bomb in evidence when the bag was searched. The dog is not wrong, though no bomb was found.

7. Security must be conducted in a layered approach. By layering canine and machine detection together the probability that a substance will get past the system drops precipitously. Canines are used in many settings to detect substances on people, for example in searching visitors and inmates in prison for contraband items including drugs, tobacco, and cellular telephones. This technology and procedure can be adapted to airports as part of a properly layered approach.

8. Americans are believers in high-tech solutions. However, machines are expensive and not without their drawbacks. Canine systems are in use in other countries — especially in Europe — in a much greater proportion so we must layer both low- and high-technology systems together (in addition to looking at the proper intelligence and eliminating bureaucracy with respect to watch lists) to maximize the likelihood that a terrorist would be foiled well before getting on an airplane.

Politicians will likely call for more machines because when people see machines, they feel safer.

Let’s concentrate on really making people safer. Ignorance is not bliss.

About the author

Girard William “Jerry” Bradshaw is the CEO and Training Director for Tarheel Canine Training, Inc. of Sanford, North Carolina. Jerry is a professional consultant to various Police agencies and private corporations for K9 training & deployment. Jerry is often featured speaker at Police K9 conferences and has been invited to instruct at workshops and seminars around the country. Jerry has written articles for Dog Sport Magazine and Police K9 Magazine, and is the author of the forthcoming book Controlled Aggression in Theory & Practice, which is available for purchase here.

Jerry is a co-founder, Judge, and East Coast Director of one of the fastest growing protection dog sports in America, widely recognized as the single most difficult protection sport there is, PSA. Jerry is also a co-founding director of the National Tactical Police Dog Association which applies many of the same successful scenario-based principles found in PSA to the certification of police dogs.

Jerry has competed in National Championship trials in both Schutzhund and PSA, winning the PSA national championships in 2003 with his dog Ricardo V.D. Naaturzicht. Jerry is the only competitor to train 2 dogs to the PSA 3 level, and has achieved the SchH 3 level numerous times, with “V” scores. Tarheel Canine Training is a nationally renowned training facility for police service dogs, and has placed trained police dogs at various federal, state, and local agencies nationally and internationally since 1994. For more information on Tarheel Canine Training, or Jerry Bradshaw, please click here.

Jerry’s latest book, Controlled Aggression in Theory & Practice, was written for police K9 professionals and covers basic foundation training such as testing green K9 prospects for patrol suitability, training drive development, drive channeling, working in the bite suit, human orientation (combating equipment orientation). The book further features key skills training including training guarding behavior, out on command, redirected bites and the out and return, and the best way to train a call off with little to no pressure on the dog. If you have trouble with the recall (call-off) exercise being reliable, the information alone on training the call off in a new and different way is worth the price of the book hands down. Order your copy by clicking hereclicking here.

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