Newest arrival at BWI: high-tech screening device

Explosives-detecting Sentinel II demonstrated

February 09, 2005|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Walking through the Sentinel II -- a new passenger screening device that debuted yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- feels more like an encounter with a misaligned hair dryer than an explosive-detection system.

But officials who gathered for a demonstration of the walk-through device -- which uses quick blasts of air to detect explosive substances -- said it has the potential to change the face of airport security.

If test runs prove effective, the portal could be used to prevent even trace amounts of explosive materials from passing through airports nationwide.

"We all saw the devastation in Russia last summer," said James Fuller, chief of staff of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, referring to the terrorist bombings of two planes outside Moscow that killed more than 80 passengers. "A device like this could preclude something like that."

What's more, officials said, the portal will replace the security "pat-downs" that the TSA began using in response to the tragedy in Russia. The practice has prompted complaints from passengers, as well as charges from civil libertarians that it might discriminate against women.

"No one likes pat-downs, but we have to protect our traveling public," said James F. Ports Jr., deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation.

BWI, which the federal government has used for testing new equipment and security screening strategies since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is one of eight U.S. airports tapped to test the walk-through devices.

Later this year, BWI will also try out a machine called an X-ray Backscatter unit, which creates a photo-like image that allows screeners to see through clothing to search for explosives and plastic weapons.

The Sentinel II will be used only on those passengers selected by airport security administrators for additional screening, approximately 13 percent of people traveling through the checkpoints. If an alarm sounds in the portal, the passenger will be screened further.

Mark Laustra, president of New Jersey-based Smith's Detection, which manufactures the device, said initial tests of the portals showed a false positive rate of less than 1 percent. They are also being used at nuclear power plants.

The TSA, which began testing the machines at various airports last year, is footing the bill for the new devices, which cost more than $125,000 each.

During the sole portal's first day of operation, those who passed through the machine emerged looking slightly wind-blown and amazed at what several called its "Space Age" feel.

Similar in size and shape to a photo booth, the gray and blue portal uses 40 air jets to dislodge particles from the hair, skin, clothes and shoes of passengers. The portal then sucks the particle samples into a vent to be tested.

The process takes approximately 14 seconds, and passengers are instructed to step in and out by a computerized voice.

"The puff of air was a little stronger than I expected," said Holly Ellison, who works in public affairs for the airport, after her first walk-through. "They came from all different directions and blew my hair a little -- but it's not scary to go through. Actually, it's kind of neat."

The only near challenge with yesterday's trials came when Mike Collins, a 6-foot-7 employee of the state Department of Transportation's homeland security office, almost grazed his head on the ceiling of the device.

"My hair was scraping a little, but when you're this tall you're used to this happening," Collins said.

TSA's Fuller lauded the arrival of the portal at BWI, saying it can be added to a laundry list of improvements to airport security nationwide. At BWI, the first airport in the nation to have a fully federalized security force, officials have successfully tested theme-park-style security lines and flat-screen televisions displaying detailed instructions for passengers.

Officials have not determined how long the portal will be tested at BWI, or whether its function will be impaired by dust from carpets or the airport's ventilation systems.

"How will these things affect the machine? Obviously we won't know until we complete the pilot program," Ports said. "But our business is moving people through the airport quickly, with ease and without intrusion, and we believe this device will help us do that."

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