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The Transportation Security Administration has been searching for ways to better check people's bodies for bombs at airport checkpoints. Until recently that meant pat-down searches. But yesterday the TSA unveiled a new system for checking passengers at McCarran. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.
PLASKON: Checking bags for explosives is no problem. Airport security put bags in x-ray machines, open them up to look inside and even use advanced machinery to check for traces of chemicals that can be used in explosives.
SOUND: Airport Security: Come on forward.
PLASKON: But checking people's bodies isn't so easy. A TSA initiative begun in September to rigorously frisk more people led to dozens of sexual harassment complaints across the nation. So, the TSA's turning to technology. McCarran's TSA director Jose Ralls explains the box that looks like a metal detector.
RALLS: The machine actually will talk to the individual, tell them to stand inside and wait and as soon as they are cleared it will tell them to proceed. We will also have staff that is out there, this is a very new product to make sure that people get accustomed to it."
PLASKON: These walk-through detectors are called Explosive Detection Trace Portals. They test substances that may be on a person. Ralls watches one airport passenger go through it from a distance.
RALLS: Now he knows to go on through, you hear it? And he just waits and as soon as the air is analyzed he will be able to proceed forward.
PLASKON: The TSA says the machines puffs air off of a person, but in fact it's really more of a series of blasts of air that often startles people he says.
RALLS: That is why our people are out there to explain to them the noise that they will be hearing.
SOUND: Blasts of air
PLASKON: The way it's supposed to work is that suspect particles are blasted off of a person toward the floor where within 7 seconds the machine can detect 40 types of explosives and then if some are found security is alerted. The machine's manufacturer, Smith Detection says the portals have less than a 1 percent error rate. Mark Lastra, Vice President of Smith, says the airport application is an adaptation from where this technology was typically used in the past.
LASTRA: Mostly highly controlled facilities such as nuclear power plants and government buildings with high security needs.
PLASKON: The TSA is in phase one of testing with Smith Detection and competitor General Electric. Machines like these are now installed at 9 airports around the nation and the TSA is collecting data to see if it cuts down on passenger wait times because it's faster and more efficient than being frisked by people. Passenger Joe Van Dover always flies first class, so he doesn't have to go through the machine, but he likes it.
VAN DOVER: It's going to make me feel a lot safer on the flights.
PLASKON: Another passenger is worried that the machine might wrongly single out people who work with gunpowder or other chemicals.
PASSENGER: It depends on how sensitive it is, people do absorb chemicals from the different jobs that they do.
PLASKON: And Cheryl Jaffe says it doesn't go far enough.
JAFFE: Going back to September 11, this probably wouldn't have stopped it from happening. So maybe people have to be more inventive now.
PLASKON: The TSA plans to deploy five more of these portals elsewhere in the nation by late spring and eventually would like them to be as prevalent as metal detectors.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR