Electronic Design

Engineers Help Raise The Bar For Homeland Security

The U.S. government is spending billions to replace or alter much of the antiterrorism technology installed since Sept. 11, 2001, The New York Times has reported. A review of agency documents and interviews with government officials and independent experts revealed that despite a price tag of $4.5 billion spent so far on homeland security, "many devices currently in use have done little to improve the nation's security," said the Times. Problems include:

  • Too few outdoor air monitors and a 36-hour lag time from sample collection to test analysis.
  • Radioactivity monitors at ports for shipping containers and trucks frequently sound "false positive" alarms.
  • Airport X-ray machines for carry-on baggage offer limited object detection due to their 2D viewing capabilities.
  • Checked baggage screening units sound false positives as much as 30% of the time.
  • Unfortunately, it's too easy to forget the urgency the government (and most U.S. citizens) felt post-Sept. 11. Federal officials told the Times they bought the best equipment available at the time, "buying those devices that were readily available, instead of trying to buy promising technology that was not yet in production."

    All of us involved in technology know that if you opt to keep waiting for the next promising new technology, you'll never be ready to buy: the next generation is perpetually over the horizon. Those of you designing consumer electronics may see fast-tracked product development cycles of a year or less. But workers on airport and border security would likely vouch that prior to Sept. 11, those design areas were not exactly the speedway for new-technology ramp-up.

    I'm writing this on a plane, so I'm hardly in a position to criticize efforts to keep America flying via hasty purchase and hurried installation of baggage screening equipment. The lion's share of Homeland Security spending, some $3.2 billion, went for the minivan-size baggage scanners. The behemoth machines slow screening because many were shoehorned into baggage-check lobbies rather than integrated into the luggage intake lines.

    To free up the bottlenecks, airports now are bringing the scanners back into the baggage handling systems, with integration costs potentially running into the billions. This was not an economical way of doing things, but consider the economic hit the travel industry took even with the fast-tracked installation of the equipment.

    Perhaps we overspent on the baggage scanners versus the relatively meager budget for air-quality monitors ($207 million). But airports were symbolic--where we felt most vulnerable--and nervous flyers needed a security blanket. The million-dollar machines gave us a feeling of safety, and, sitting in the lobby, they certainly provide a visible deterrent to anyone trying to send explosives onto planes.

    While I won't criticize the government's spending on technology, it is maddening that many airports still don't have adequate staff trained to man the equipment, so it could be billions down the drain. Several studies have shown that TSA workers are not meeting federal standards. The Times talked to current and former screeners at several airports who said that "at busy times, bags are sometimes loaded onto planes without being properly examined."

    Integrating the luggage scanning equipment into the conveyors should lessen the manpower requirements and hopefully free the workers to focus on security. But training, like the technology, is never going to be finished. Technology can't stand still, and neither can the schooling of alert, well-trained security forces. The focus on continuous improvement in homeland security provides a strong career opportunity for EEs. It is also a challenge to raise the bar and improve safety and efficiency for all of us.

    Speaking of those who have raised the bar for the engineering profession, the City College of New York honored Dave Bursky, our Editor at Large, for his outstanding lifetime achievement as a journalist. Specifically, CCNY inducted Dave into the university's Communications Alumni Group Hall of Fame. Dave is the first electrical engineer to be so honored, and he joins an elite group of other lifetime journalists including Bernard Kalb, Stephen B. Shepard, Upton Sinclair, Marvin Kalb, and Larry Gralla. Congratulations and thanks to Dave for his 32 years at Electronic Design!

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