We live in a revolutionary time. In our lifetime, we have seen beautiful things such as technology advancements, conservation efforts, famous music stars, and have been graced with the ability to live in a free country. Also, in our lifetime, we have seen terrible things such as the terrorist acts of 9/11 in New York City and the proceeding war and economic recession that followed. Day by day, our world advances and with advancement comes opportunities for people to take advantage of situations for their personal gain or agenda. In a world that is always moving, we have to create solutions and preventative measures to problems such as terrorism. One area progressing in its security and preventative measures is the airline cargo industry through the Certified Cargo Screening Program and its new extension of canine and handler teams. 

The Current State of Air Cargo Screening

Air cargo screening is the product of the unfortunate events that occurred on September 11, 2001. Although this day is a horrid reminder of death and destruction at the hands of terrorists, the day became a catalyst for increasing the protection of the United States and the people who live inside of it. A primary area in which security and defense were supplied was the airline industry. Starting as a small internal system within airports to screen cargo for explosives, the current state of air cargo screening has expanded tremendously. Over time the system has grown from an individual entity to a whole network of cargo screening facilities that are both public and private. The system’s conception is within the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, which is a mandate created to ensure security within the air cargo area of the airline industry. The 100% mandate screens air cargo that is being transported on passenger aircraft originating in the U.S. for explosives and dangerous devices before the cargo is loaded onto aircraft. Signed into law by the president at the time, George W. Bush, the mandate started one of the protection processes of post 9/11 America. In charge of the overall program is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which delegated some responsibility to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The TSA’s first creation in this program was the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP), the interior and individual entity within airports themselves. The program acted under the mandate by screening cargo at a 100% piece level for explosives before they boarded passenger aircraft. The CCSP utilized technology specifically meant for the task such as x-ray devices, explosive trace detection (ETD) devices, and electronic metal detection (EMD) devices. The technology helped to make the program more efficient but also had its limitations, particularly within the bounds of expanding economic markets and commerce. When this program was overloaded, the TSA sought expansion into a new program called Certified Cargo Screening Facilities (CCSF).

The CCSF mitigated bottlenecking problems by replacing the single-entry point system inside of airports with a network of third-party facilities that could help in handling the current and future increase in commerce production and turn; it’s needed for screening and security across the airline industry. Facilities that qualify to apply to the CCSF extension include manufacturers, warehouses, distribution centers, third-party logistics providers, indirect air carriers, airport cargo handlers, independent cargo screening facilities, etc. These third-party facilities must follow the rules and regulations set by the TSA and go through an application process that ensures these CCSF’s are trusted and vetted to do the job correctly. Any Certified Cargo Screening Facility must comply with the following rules regarding security standards, and chain of custody.

  • Comply with safeguarding measures created by TSA’s Security program
  • Make sure there is no corruption of the cargo throughout the chain of custody
  • Permit onsite validations and periodic inspections
  • Screen cargo as individual items and not by palletized items

As our world changes and grows amid possible threatening environments such as the airline industry, there is a continuous audit of the practices and efficiency of the CCSP and is CCSF. The current state of the air cargo screening industry has evolved from its start in 2007 to not only use technology but use a tool that rivals technology’s speed and reliability: canines.

What are 3PK9 Teams?

Canine and handler teams have been used for years in many areas of security, and it was only a matter of time before they were implanted into the Certified Cargo Screening Program also. Canine teams initially were introduced to the program to counteract a problem regarding palletized items. These items could be scanned but had to be taken apart, scanned, and put back together before they could go onto passenger aircraft to ensure everything was screened at a 100%-piece level. Palletized items are too large to fit through most machines and the process of disassembling them to get pieces screened appropriately to TSA security standards wastes time, money, and resources that inevitably slow down the speed and efficiency of the supply chain. Canines relieve these concerns by allowing palletized items to stay assembled to be screened. 

The National Explosive Detection Canine Team Program (NEDCTP) was the first canine program created by TSA that utilized the keen detection of canines within the CCSP. Downfalls of its initial program were that it could not provide enough trained canine and handler teams to work with the demands of the program and in turn, a new system was created. The Third-Party Canine Cargo (3PK9 or 3PK9-C) got its start in 2018 and was an extension to the CCSP that like CCSF’s, allowed third-parties to join in the air cargo screening efforts but with regards to canines. This program became the extension of the CCSP that bridged public and private sectors of canine training and handling under the central idea that there was a need for more canine and handler teams to keep up the safety of the nation. As with the CCSF program, third-party canine training and handler teams have to go through a rigorous certification process that aligns directly with the TSA’s 100% screening guidelines as set by the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007. After their certification process, teams will be able to detect explosives and other dangerous items within air cargo.

What is CCSF-K9?

Just like with the rest of the CCSP, the 3PK9 program has also evolved. The Department of Homeland Security and the TSA found that third-party canine handler teams were not only in demand for the system to work appropriately and efficiently but also a means to save costs and resources as the economy and its requirements increase. In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Bills was passed, which called for the private sector of canine-handler teams to reinforce the TSA’s internal canine-handler teams. The present-day system is called the Certified Cargo Screening Facility-K9 (CCSF-K9).

Current State of Explosive Trace Detection Technology

In 2018 it was understood that over 62.5 million tons of cargo were transferred through the air with a value of over $6.2 trillion. As expected, this system became an easy target for terrorists to use as the extensive amount of cargo being transported across the country daily allows for some systematic fails and loopholes. In trying to patch those holes and ensuring the system put in place by the DHS and TSA does not fail the American citizens, technology is employed to help with the accuracy of screening. There are many tools and technology used within the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP). Explosive Trace Detection (ETD) Technology is used within the program as well as throughout many other security entities such as airports, marine ports, cargo facilities and significant points of entry into places that could be used or contain items susceptible to a terrorist attack.

The three main types of technology used within the CCSP is X-Ray Devices, Explosive Trace Detection (ETD) Devices, and Electronic Metal Detection (EMD) Devices. Each one has its specific function to the detection of explosives. X-ray devices currently have three classifications: Single view, Dual View, and Multi-view). X-ray devices physically allow for the sight of explosive devices within items. Although useful, x-ray machines are not full proof as evident by the mid-air bombing in February of Somalian passenger jet headed to Djibouti. In this situation, two workers of the Mogadishu international airport brought a laptop containing a bomb to the screening belt of an x-ray checkpoint before passenger aircraft gates. In being an internal employee, both men got the bomb through the inspection by knowing the person mandating the machine and distracting him. The bomb inevitably went off midair. X-ray devices have a percentage of user error that can be detrimental. X-rays also have an error in that they can only see so much, and bombs are becoming more and more sophisticated in design. Other technologies used are Explosive Trace Detection (ETD) Devices which are handheld or desktop devices that provide a residual explosive material using a swab-based collection process, and Electronic Metal Detection (EMD) Devices which detect electromagnetic fields which set off the alarm is a certain threshold is exceeded. Also a useful and necessary piece of technology, it is only as reliable as it’s usage.

In 2010 one of the most inventive bomb-making terrorists Ibrahim al-Asiri constructed an incredibly sophisticated and hard to detect IED by putting 400 grams of PETN inside of a typical household goods shipped on air cargo air crafts; printer cartridges. They were timed to go off mid-flight on two different cargo aircraft that were headed for the United States. All cargo on these two flights were 100% screened. The IEDs were not found using ETD Devices or any other screening technology but instead by an intelligence operation. Technology is limited in its ability but is also necessary to the layered security format that is currently used.

How Explosive Trace Detection Canines Beat Technology

As mentioned, canines are the newest or oldest form of technology being used depending on who you ask. With 300 million sensory receptors in their noses that can break an aroma down to parts per million (ppm), canines are a technology that can be trained towards detecting certain anomalies and explosive residues hidden in cargo with reliability unmatched elsewhere. It is worth mentioning that a common misconception is that canines can detect the explosives themselves when most of the time canines are identifying anomalies or scents produced by mixtures of specific explosive agents. Facilities like CSK9 train canines to recognize different families of explosives such as Nitroalkenes, Peroxides, Nitrates, Nitrate Esters, Acid Salts, Nitroaromatics, and more. This training ensures that canines can detect explosive odors that can come from multiple bomb forms and numerous countries. Canines are also trained to detect more subtle scents that emit from explosive compounds such as solvents, binders, and plasticizers which are used themselves not explosives but instead are agents of bomb creation as a whole. Even with that fallacy in mind, canines still prove to be more effective than current screening technology. Performance testing was done between screening technology, and canines have shown that canines screen cargo 97% faster and more efficiently than technology. Canine’s noses lead scents to the olfactory bulb in the brain, which processes the smell and breaks it down to parts per million (ppm). The biological complexity within the canine’s scent systems allows canines to distinguish odors particular to individual explosives and their mixtures in a manner that is faster and more efficient than any machine has been able to provide.

Why Canines Will Make a Difference

The biggest threat to the airline industry overall does not lie with the sophisticated bomb makers that lie in wait but instead in two other areas. The first threat lies internationally. The United States has spent years trying to work on the efficiency and reliability of its security measures concerning air cargo. Unfortunately, many airports around the world are far behind when comparing security, screening machinery, training techniques, and practices. Canines help to make a difference in starting to combat this problem by giving an option for international airports to use to one of the most reliable and cost-efficient methods for explosive trace detection in a time when their resources might be limited. Expanding the CCSP internationally will not only help domestic security but will also help to prevent terrorist attacks across the globe. Only canines can make that difference right now. 

The second risk lies in terrorists’ ability to recruit those who work inside the airport system as with the Somalian bombing situation in February of 2016. Having people on the inside is one of the more dangerous threats because it allows terrorists to take advantage of the human error found inside current explosive trace detection devices. Canines make a difference in this area because canines extensive training will likely eliminate any human error involved in screening cargo. Canines are making a difference every day across the country by detecting explosives within the Certified Cargo Screening Program. The future of our country and international air cargo security improve through the usage of canines. K9 security makes a difference in screening measures in the present and will soon make a significant difference in the future both domestically & internationally.


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