Thursday, August 22, 2002

Is Security A Campaign Issue?
Both Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit and blogger Gary Leff of More Room Throughout Coach have written that the present security system is a strong campaign issue for November. As Glenn puts it in his FoxNews collumn:

The anger that travelers feel toward airline security measures -- like the confiscation of G.I. Joe nailclippers and tweezers, or "random" searches that seem to target mostly white-haired old women or whoever's the first person in line -- is real. It could blossom into a political force.

Gary Leff's comments follow in the same vein:

I agree with Instapundit: there may be a sleeper political issue here. The Dems won't attack the only Democrat in the cabinet, so there may not be pressure on the Republicans to fire Mineta -- but an independent (or at least a non-incumbent) could really make something out of this.

Gary Leff is also the source of the "Impeach Norm Mineta" bumper stickers.

I think this is a failure as a political issue and the reasons it makes poor politics are some of the same reasons why the present flap over security is lots of smoke that need not end up in a big fire.

Lets assume a candidate jumps on the bandwagon of airport security. Before dealing with the specifics of the situation there must be a strategy for how to apply this issue to the other candidates. Since no one is running on the claim that "I set up the TSA and ordered them to strip search you" there is nothing to prevent the other candidates in a race from jumping on the bandwagon. An incumbent could say "I agree and that is why I'm calling for hearings". A challenger could simply position himself further toward traveler rights than an incumbent. I suppose there might be some Congressmen who have made stupid statements and are thus vulnerable, but beyond that this is not going to be a sticky issue.

On the specifics the politician who tries to use this issue becomes vulnerable to the facts. Fact #1- the new TSA head has only been in the job for a little more than a month. Launching a barage of criticism against the agency will enable defenders to say "Give the man a chance." They can also point to several changes since Admiral Loy took over, including today's announcement about allowing drinks through security. These are part of an on going review of all the rules. This is precisely what the critics have been calling for. Plus Loy has made some canny remarks since taking over, like the one where he insisted he needed more people with aviation experience. That demonstrates a strong desire to work with the airlines and airports. If you want evidence of that relationship, consider the statement today by Air Transport Association spokesman Michael Wascom (The Air Transport Association represents the big airlines):

James Loy, who replaced John Magaw last month as TSA chief, said the agency wants to balance customer service and security.

He announced Thursday that passengers will be allowed to carry beverages in paper or foam cups through metal detectors.

Until now, the policy has varied from airport to airport, Wascom said. "Today's announcement reflects a more common-sense approach that TSA is undertaking," he said.

Since folks like Wascom had nothing good to say about Magaw I'd say they like Loy's approach.

Fact #2- the current screeners who are responsible for the vast majority of complaints are about to be out of their jobs. Until the new TSA screeners are on the job nation wide we can not tell if the situation will greatly improve, but the fact that massive change is taking place does a bit more to undermine the political potential of the issue.

I must admit there is one area where an incumbent might be vulnerable on this issue. The requirements that TSA is struggling to meet were all set by Congress. It is starting to look like some of them, such as the 100% baggage inspection by December 31st requirement, are impossible to meet. The equipment needed to do the screening doesn't grow on trees and if the companies simply can not make the machines fast enough this is hardly the fault of the airports or the TSA. That seems to be the wedge that a smart challenger could exploit if his opponent had voted for the timelines.

I will also admit that if the debate is driven with news reports of events that took place months ago under different leadership and different rules then this puppy might have legs. But should the blogsphere which prides itself on correcting the major media be taking their cue from such stories? I find it troubling that when questioned on the sources of his FoxNews article Mr. Reynolds responded:

Of course, there was one anonymous reader who didn't like the column:

"It seems inconceivable that a professional educator would write an article with so little factual research and so many of the usual cliches of carping critics of security."

Give it up, Norm. I know it's you. . . .

...To those (well, the plural isn't obviously appropriate, but. . .) who say I'm wrong about this: show me the evidence that travellers are happy and think this stuff makes 'em safer. I haven't seen any

I think the complaint was justified. The sourcing on the FoxNews article are not strong. It presents a link to first hand account in a blog, a link to Gary Leff's site, a link to a news story about GI Joe weapons being taken, and then two USA Today articles. One of the links is to the Yahoo version of the USA Today article which has now disappeared. The second has an incorrect URL. Based on the fact that 40% of the links on the article are down I can see why the anonymous (and anonymous is not the way to respond in my opinion) letter writer might question just how much research Reynolds did. Now I don't expect scholarly research in a weekly column, but when given the chance to elaborate in his own forum the response was slam the door on the topic with a loaded response- prove people are happy. Even if they were (and I'll grant many are not) when was the last time you saw a news article about happy travelers?

The true question is not how happy travellers are, it is why they are unhappy. If they are annoyed with airline service security is not the problem. If they are annoyed because the airlines are cutting back on flights they would normally be on security is not the problem. If their companies are cutting back on travel (something that was certainly accelerated by 9/11 but was happening anyway as the economy slowed) then security is not the problem. And if security is the problem, are things getting better or worse? I'm hearing lots of complaints about the way things have been. Who is looking forward to what things will be?

I never want to just hear about a problem. I want to hear the solution. I'm hearing the new TSA head say he is seeking the balance between customer service and security. I agree completely. So where is the discussion on what that balance is? But of course it is easier to flog the dead horse of past problems than come up with solutions.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Inside the TSA, Part 5
For those of you just arriving:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Some general comments on the process for hiring screeners. Like most processes it is a mix of the good and the bad. On the positive side:
  • Good tests. All the testing, with a few minor exceptions, seemed geared toward the job requirements. Those who pass should have the general aptitude for the position. Given the incredible failure rate among the current screeners who apply the new TSA screeners should be better at their jobs.
  • The contract staff (NCS Pearson) did a good job of working within the system they were given. They were pretty much universally cheerful and encouraging.
On the negative side of the ledger:
  • Far too much hurry up and wait. There is no reason for people to have to spend a 12 hour day at the assessment center. That is poor scheduling on someone's part. As multiple candidates remarked to me, this does not speak well of the agency you are considering working for.
  • Poor use of technology. There seemed to be no data sharing among sections despite the huge numbers of computers and cat 5 cabling up and down the hallways.
  • Inaccurate or misleading information. If you want 10 years of background give that to the candidates in writing in advance. If you say you are sending a package of forms prior to the assessment then you had better send it. And if you aren't you have my email- tell me!
  • Inability to tell people when they will start work. It is hard to plan your life if all you know if that your start date will be sometime in the next month or six weeks. That risks the loss of candidates to private sector jobs.
Overall my initial impression is that the TSA force should be an improvement over the current set of screeners. But some major ifs need to be attached to that. IF the TSA can secure enough people to adequately man the checkpoints and provide for the inevitable turnover. IF the 100 hours of training is sufficient to produce qualified screeners (and I have my doubts about that).

A high percentage of the people I spent 8 hours waiting with on the second day were military vets. Much of what happened during the process they took as normal examples of the Federal Government in action. Coming from the private sector I have less tolerance for such things. If the attitude that runs the TSA is based around the time dishonored hurry up and wait system the result will be a disaster. The key to making the screening work is going to be finding the delicate balance between security and convenience.

A little seemingly off topic digression for a moment. In high school I was fortunately enough to have an excellent US history class called America and the World. It was taught in both a large three class group (about 150 students) as well at the class room level. Two to three times a week we would gather in a lecture hall to hear one of the three teachers talk about that day's topic. It was a fantastic class that covered topics I didn't hear in a classroom again until I took upper division history theory classes in college.

Toward the end of the school year one of the lecture topics was terrorism. This was 1985 so modern domestic terrorism had not yet happened. But the lecture, but teacher Jim Hill, discussed how terrorists might plan a campaign against the US and what they would attempt to achieve. He postulated a series of car bombs that would force authorities to put up road blocks and restrict travel. The goal of the terrorists was to force the government to place limits that society would find intolerable. The result would be eventual accommodation of the terrorist's political objectives. To this day I have a very vivid image of armed troops checking cars as they come off a freeway off ramp.

As the slogan goes, if you stop me from traveling the terrorists have won. They want to cause disruption and focus the attention on the heavy hand of government security. So far they are succeeding. We have the massive list of stories of security incompetence. GI Joes gets his gun taken away. Mothers are forced to swill breast milk. Security wants to take Joe Foss' Medal of Honor away (note to screeners- Joe is a Marine who survived Guadalcannal. He might be 86, but I wouldn't mess with him if I were you!). Just the fact that I can blog about Joe Foss and breast milk in the same topic has to make you wonder a bit.

But I also ask myself, what should we have expected? We have a brand new agency. We have brand new rules. We have a set of screeners in place who know they are going to loose their jobs. With the combination of process change confusion, post 9/11 paranoia, and low job motivation I'm actually surprised it isn't worse. Frankly I do not think the TSA has had a chance to show what it can do. I know that is controversial statement in blogland. I don't think I would have made it a couple of weeks ago- just look at what I was writing about in March (screening 3 year olds and sleeping screeners). But the possibility of actually doing this job has put me to thinking about it more, and lord knows my 14 hours of testings and waiting gave me time to think.

Looking at the less than one year of TSA activities I see several categories of problems. First you have the news stories of strange behavior by the screeners. The "drink the breast milk" story is a recent one that is really a non-story. It was in the news August 9th but the incident happened in April:

Elizabeth McGarry, 40, said the incident happened April 2 as she was boarding a Delta flight for Miami with her daughter.

McGarry called the incident "embarrassing and disgusting."

At the time, airport security guards were allowed to have passengers drink from containers. That rule was changed in June.

So this should have been news in April, but some people didn't understand that this was old news. Consider this editorial by the Savannah Morning News:

There was the security screener at Los Angeles International Airport who confiscated a 2-inch toy gun that belonged to a G.I. Joe doll carried by a child. This followed a report that government testers had successfully smuggled REAL weapons past security checkpoints at major airports one out of every four attempts.

Days later, a mother carrying an infant through security at Kennedy International in New York was forced to drink the breast milk she had pumped into bottles for the baby's flight.

The GI Joe incident took place in August, and the breast milk back in April But the spin is much better if they are all happening at the same time. Even worse for the editorial writers, the because of incidents like the breast milk one from April the rules on that matter have changed. No one should be making you drink your breast milk today. This is an example of the way the rules evolved since 9/11. No matter who put those new rules together there were bound to be loopholes. Combine new rules that are silent on certain situations with the low talent, low pay, low motivation screeners and it would be a miracle if we didn't get dozens of stories like the breast milk one. The important news is not that this happened in April- it is whether it is still happening today. And whether it is happening with the new TSA workforce.

What we should have in place by the end of the year is a uniform set of rules for security. With the full TSA screening force in place everyone needs to be using the same playbook. That will take strong and consistent management, but it is achievable. The flying public understood that post 9/11 things might be bumpy, but they were willing to put up with that, at least for a while. But time is just about up and the TSA will need to hit the ground running to find that balance between security and ease of access to air travel.

A second type of problem is the high failure rate among screeners- their inability to detect weapons. As this July 1st CNN story puts it:

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is not pleased with the results of recent, secret tests of airport security checkpoints across the country.

Transportation Department spokesman Leonardo Alcivar on Monday told CNN, "We are going to demand an immediate increase in performance" as the result of the undercover tests of security screeners.

The tests, just concluded, failed to catch nearly 25 percent of fake guns, dynamite or bombs covertly presented to the checkpoints, according to figures cited by USA Today.

This unacceptable failure rate was widely trumpeted in blogs as further evidence of TSA incompetence. But the point of the tests to get a benchmark for what the present screeners were doing. Remember, the TSA did not hire or train these folks. Again, CNN:

Alcivar says the tests were ordered by Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and were conducted to provide a benchmark against which the TSA will conduct future tests.

"We've known there were problems with the system. That's why TSA was created," said Alcivar. "We'll do more of these." .... "We'll have higher standards. As we move to a system with federal security screeners we're going to insists on dramatic improvements in security. We're going to see them," he said.

Makes sense to me. You need a baseline and since the federal takeover is not complete I'm willing to take Mr. Alcivar at his word that the federal standards will be higher. Certainly the fact that 85% of the current screeners fail to meet TSA requirements is a positive sign.

The other blogsphere response was that they failed to test TSA run airports, of which there were just three at the time of the testing (Baltimore, Maryland; Louisville, Kentucky; and Mobile, Alabama). I agree that is a big question mark, and I will want to see some evidence of improvement. Certainly testing the TSA run airports using the same tactics and reporting the results would be a great comfort to the general public- unless the TSA is even worse. As I noted above, the 100 hours of training seems to be low to me, except that Mr. Alcivar notes that:

[TSA screeners] have "five times the amount of training", be subjected to continuous undercover testing and have to pass rigorous tests.

So I'll withhold judgement on this until I see what the training consists of and how comfortable I feel if/when I'm actually on the job.

I am not a Norm Mineta fan by any stretch of the imagination. But some of the flak he is getting is unjustified. But he and his new TSA chief need to pay attention to the rising grumbling by passengers and their decision to defect to cars for many shorter trips. TSA needs to demonstrate that it understands that security is not the be all and end all. Getting people through the airport quickly and efficiently has to be an equal priority. If all we hear about during the coming holiday season is long lines and huge waits at checkpoints the TSA leadership will be in hot political water.

As for me, I await the call to start training. Unless the private sector snaps me up first. And you can be sure I'll be blogging some more about this as the story unfolds.
Inside the TSA, Part 4
For those of you just arriving:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

The next stop was the physical assessment part of the test. This is another area I am not allowed to discuss in any detail. You do have to prove your ability to lift up to 40 pounds. You also must possess the ability to search passenger luggage. The San Jose Mercury News notes:

Screener applicants also have struggled with aptitude tests for identifying hidden shapes on X-ray screens, and others have trouble with strength requirements -- quickly lifting suitcases of all shapes and sizes, a must for keeping airport security lines moving quickly, officials say.

I would agree that the strength testing would prove difficult for someone who sat at home on the couch all day eating ice cream and watching Jerry Springer. But anyone in half way decent shape would have no problem passing any of the physical assessments.

After completion of the tests were were taken over to the HR wing and placed in a waiting room. It was now after 5pm. I had arrived at about 12:30pm so I was in pretty good shape. Some of the candidates had arrived at 8am and were still waiting. Needless to say there was a growing amount of complaining being done. No one had yet told us how much of the process was remaining but the impression was that there was still an interview to be conducted. Several candidates expressed fear that the HR staff would go home and they would have to return the next day to complete the process. Since all of us had been here all or part of two days no one was interested in another day.

The HR people were all contract workers from NCS Pearson. I suppose this is probably a lucrative contract for NCS Pearson. The DOT press release says:

Joined by Under Secretary of Transportation for Security John Magaw, Secretary Mineta announced that NCS Pearson Inc. will assist in the recruitment and hiring process by providing an automated, Web-based system for the recruitment and placement of personnel. Under the terms of the $103.4 million competitively procured contract, the company will also provide on-going human resources services for these personnel deployed throughout the country.

“Today marks another major step in the recruitment and deployment of a modern, well-trained and highly qualified federal security workforce to provide world class security and customer service at airports around the country,” said Secretary Mineta. “I am personally committed to ensuring that security professionals protecting our nation’s travelers be highly trained, better paid and provide top-quality service.”

Under the terms of the contract, NCS Pearson will:
  • Post and capture security screener job applications using an automated process that is managed nationally and recruits locally to find the most qualified candidates under the stringent standards required by the TSA;
  • Establish and manage multiple Assessment Center facilities for TSA physical standards, aptitude and English proficiency testing of candidates;
  • Manage candidate selection: interviews, and new employee processing; and
  • Provide day-to-day servicing in all areas of Human Resource support.
The NCS Pearson folks could have taken off at 5pm or 6pm. To their credit they announced they would stay until all of us were processed. The manager for the operation told us that he was calling in all the people he had to assist in getting us processed. He also said he would order pizza for everyone. Since those folks who arrived at 8am had not eaten unless they brought the food with them the idea of pizza was popular. Some of the folks also wanted to make phone calls to tell their families they would be late. Access to phones was provided as well.

The logjam was in the paperwork area. The 14 page SP 85P Background Check had to be done correctly. So part of the process was to sit down with an HR person and go over your answers line by line. With 14 pages this obviously took time. To help speed things up an HR person came in to address the 20 or so people in the waiting room. She explained common mistakes and problems. "You have to go back 10 years," she said.

At this point everyone protested. The SP 85P form called for 7 years of background. I had 7 years of jobs and address ready. So did everyone else. But suddenly it was 10 years. The HR lady insisted you needed 10 years. At least one person who had been there since 8am (it was now about 7pm) had to leave and come back the next day because she did not have 10 years of data. Fortunately I'd brought tons of extra stuff to cover this type of eventuality. However this was the type of information that should have been conveyed much earlier in the process. Everyone knew about that form from the time they received there appointment for the assessment and never had a 10 year window been suggested or even hinted at.

Time marched slowly on. Long about 8pm I finally got my chance to go over my paperwork. I am pretty good at paperwork so my form required only corrections to extend to that 10 year period. I was also presented with some more papers to sign authorizing background and credit checks. I was pretty sure I had already signed such documents but signing them again wasn't going to hurt. That completed I was sent back to the holding room to await my final interview.

That happened around 8:45pm. I was informed I had passed all the tests and was presented with a job offer that is contingent on passing the drug test and background check. What was unclear was the start date. The next step would be an all day orientation to be held on a Saturday or Sunday. There we would learn the ins and out of Federal employment and arrange for things like direct deposit and benefits. Immediately following that weekend would be a full week of class room training and then 60 hours of on the job training. But when that orientation would be was up in the air. Until they had enough candidates to form a class we would wait. We were given a list of weekends covering 6 weeks and asked which days we would be available. Now that I know the failure rates on the tests I'm not holding my breath waiting for the call to report to duty.

That all took place just over a week ago. No word yet on my start date- I'm thinking it could be as late as mid September. In the meantime I'm looking at other job options and it is possible that by the time the TSA calls I'll have other offers on the table. I can't be the only person in this position, so it would make sense for them to get us started ASAP.

Conclusion coming up tomorrow- what does all this mean?

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Inside the TSA, Part 3
For those of you just arriving:
Part 1

Part 2

Reader Digest recap- Attempting to land a TSA screener job I passed the computerized testing and was invited back the next day for medical testing and physical assessment.

I had been given some homework to bring back with me. This included the soon to be infamous SP 85P background form, the Form 93 Medical History, and a Declaration for Federal Employment. The SP 85P wasn't too hard- I copied in the information from the online version I had completed. The Employment Declaration wasn't bad either. Mostly told you they would investigate you and that if you lied you'd be fired. The Medical History is full of exciting questions about things like your illegal drug use, how many times you've been cut open, and what things you were massively allergic too. I even got a break because as a guy I didn't have to fill out the part about "feminine problems". The only part that stumped me was the question about inoculations. I was a bit young at the time and forgot to ask the doctor what he was injecting me with. So I called my mom.

"I don't know," she said. She made a vain attempt to find the paperwork. We finally brainstormed up a passable list of the typical childhood inoculations and I left it at that.

All in all it took me about an hour and a half to complete all the paperwork. It would have taken much longer if I had been doing the background stuff from scratch. My other preparation was to acquire a Cliff Bar in case I got hungry. It was the new chocolate mint kind- highly recommended! Just stay away from the Gingersnap ones. Nasty!

I got the the assessment hotel early. I lounged in the lobby for a bit before heading up. They had given me an appointment sheet that allowed me to head right up to security. Instead of going straight ahead as I had the first day, I was directed to a different set of Pinkerton guards who searched my belongings and wanded me. Then I was directed to a table where my ID was studied and my packet of paperwork from yesterday produced. I was then escorted to the medical testing wing. On the way we passed a sign that informed you that the medical part of the testing would take approximately three and a half hours.

I was dropped off in the medical holding room. Again it was a hotel room with all the furniture removed and rows of chairs added. In this case there was a TV set to ESPN. Most of the rooms I was to see had TVs you could watch. Naturally there is nothing worth watching on daytime TV and I had neglected to bring anything to read. My bad.

The woman in charge of the waiting room greeted me and pointed at several pitchers of water. "Drink up so we can get a urine sample". I drank two cups of water and sat down to wait. A half an hour went by. Those two cups of water had made their way to my bladder and was ready, willing, and able to give them all the samples they needed. But still I waited. Finally my name was called and I was escorted down the hall. There in a large suite I found out I was going to be fingerprinted and have my photo taken. I'd have to hold it a bit longer, but it was nice to be doing something beyond watching ESPN's recap of last years X-Games.

Both the photo and the fingerprints were taken electronically. Digital camera for the photo and a scanner for the fingerprints. I had never seen an electronic fingerprint machine was it fun to watch the scans appear on the computer. I guess I have to abstain from a life of crime though- Uncle Sam has my prints. Notably the final results were studied by a gentleman who seemed very much like a "Fed"- he did not give the impression of being a contractor. And I don't mean "Fed" in a bad way- he was ultra professional while at the same time making you feel comfortable.

I should add that the contract staff were also positive and upbeat. They did the best they could under the circumstances.

When that was done I was taken back to the waiting room. I was starting to think about going to restroom and then drinking some more water when my name was called. Again, not time for the drug test. I was taken to a processing room where my medical testing paperwork was assembled and I was entered into the computer. When they took the fingerprints, I had to tell them name, social security number, and other personal data. I repeated that process here. It seemed that each section of the process did not communicate data to the other sections. Since the testing was done by different contract agents you had to repeat the same data over and over again. This negated some of my previous excitement about the use of technology to find and process TSA candidates.

Once I was in the system I was taken down the hall to drug testing. I told the lab guy I was happy to be there and ready to go. They sample was collected in a way that ensured you were giving the sample. Much paperwork went along with it to provide a chain of evidence.

From there I went through a series of tests designed to ensure you met the TSA job requirements. Your eyes were tested. Your hearing was tested. Your range of motion were tested. Your color perception were tested. Again, no specifics as some of the tests might be spoiled if you had prior knowledge and in some cases we were explicitly asked not to reveal details. Suffice it to say that all the requires were covered and if you were deficient in any way you were highly unlikely to pass.

All of these tests were completed in short order. But then I languished in the waiting room for a long time. The final step was a one on one with a doctor. Finally I was called. I was given a quick exam, told I had passed all the tests, and then sent back to the waiting room. After about 10 minutes I was called and taken along with another candidate to the physical assessment waiting room. I looked at my watch and saw that indeed the medical testing had required three and a half hours to complete. As I had been told the entire process that day would take four to five hours I was expecting to be done soon. That, however, was not to be the case.

Those who wait in part 4.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Inside the TSA, Part 2
Please see my previous post for the start of this.

At the top of the escalator you were informed you were entering a Federal site. Everything you can't bring to the airport was forbidden here. You were required to show your two forms of ID to a mean looking bald guy who made quite a show of checking them out. Then you had to empty your pockets and be wanded while your bags were being searched.

The security was provided not by the TSA but by Pinkertons. In fact there were very few TSA employees present. The testing was done by a contractor as was the medical testing. This should not be too surprising as TSA is a new agency that is having enough problems just finding people to work at the airports.

After passing through security you had to again show your ID. A woman checked my ID and found a manila folder with my name on it. From it she extracted a plastic bracelet like you get in the hospital. This was attached to my wrist and I was told I would need to show it to prove who I was. It listed my name, applicant ID number, social security number, position I was testing for, and my airport assignment. I was asked to double check all that information, and then it was attached to my left wrist. I was then escorted to a meeting room with approximately 60 chairs in it. About 1/2 were occupied by a bunch of bored looking people.

Note I said escorted. Everywhere I went for the next two days I had to have an escort. Even if you wanted to use the bathroom. If you had any doubts about what these people thought about security you rapidly lost them.

The person in charge of the room told us we would start "Soon". He glanced at this watch and added "In about 20 minutes". Personally his idea of soon was not the same as mine. A glance at my watch showed that "about 20 minutes" would have us starting at 9 am. In that time no other candidates entered the room so the wait seemed to have little purpose.

9 am finally rolled around and the door was closed. The guy in charge then read to us from a sheet of paper. Anyone who has taken a standardized test would recognize the procedure. To ensure equality everyone had to hear the same information and that meant reading it verbatim from the sheet. We were told we would be taking a computerized test. If we needed help using the computer or the mouse instruction would be provided. I thought that if anyone didn't understand how to use a computer or the mouse I didn't want them running the X-ray machine at the airport. But again, equality must prevail.

A lot of time was devoted to cell phones, pagers, and anything else that might beep. Multiple times we were warned that if any device went off during the tests were would be disqualified and escorted out. I had turned my cell phone off and was happy to have an analog watch. We were also told we were not allowed to leave until the testing was complete unless there was an emergency. It would have to be an internal emergency I guess because we were not allowed to use any communication devices to learn if there were outside emergencies.

After the required reading of the rules we were each given a packet of paperwork to fill out. Unfortunately while there were plenty of pens there were not enough clip boards. I was reminded of the scene in Men in Black where the candidates are administered a test on very thin paper with no where to write. I had a legal pad so I wrote on that. The forms had to be filled out in an exacting manner. We were supposed to follow along with our paperwork guide and not skip ahead. As some of the requirements were somewhat non-obvious this made sense. But it did slow us down to the speed of the slowest person in the group.

One of the requirements we learned of was using your full name- full first name, full middle name, and full last name. Since I usually just use a middle initial I would probably have gotten that wrong. Later one of the candidates in one of the many waiting rooms remarked that it had taken him a long time to remember how to sign his middle name in cursive.

The paperwork we had to complete included an NDA that prohibited you from discussing any specifics about the testing. So my descriptions of the tests will be limited. We also agreed to allow background checks. Once the paperwork was done we were informed that we would be taken to the testing room in groups of 10. But first they escorted all interested parties to the restrooms. I decided I'd take the opportunity to go to the bathroom since the tests were supposed to take 2 to 3 hours to complete.

On exiting the bathroom I was taken to a large room with perhaps a hundred computers set up. I was placed at one and a test administrator started the first test. As I'm not supposed to talk about the tests, I won't. However since some of the test details have been discussed in the media I'll bring that into the story. The San Jose Mercury News ran a story on Sunday about the high failure rate in the testing process:

Nationwide, 60 percent to 75 percent of those applying for airport screener jobs are failing the intensive two-day test that includes physical fitness, English and aptitude tests and criminal and credit background checks. Another quarter drop out or never show up to interviews.

During the testing I had no sense of how people were doing. Frankly I was shocked to find out that the failure rate was that high.

Again, without saying anything specific I thought that the vast majority of the computer testing represented a realistic attempt to test for the job skills a security screener would require. Now I say this with zero job experience but the tests fit my idea of what the job would require. I was impressed at the way the tests were designed and executed. I'd love to tell you more about the tests, but I'm limited by the NDA. However the Mercury News article has some details about what parts of the test are tripping people up:

The agency is hiring so fast that it hasn't been able to keep track of why most applicants fail, Rosenker said. Anecdotally, however, some TSA officials say the majority of applicants appear unable to read and speak English as well as the government demands, even though for some English is their native language.

``People have to be able to follow directions and read manuals written in English and understand security directives,'' [Heather] Rosenker, [a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration in Washington] said. ``Comprehension and correct tense and verbiage -- they need it.''

Screener applicants also have struggled with aptitude tests for identifying hidden shapes on X-ray screens, and others have trouble with strength requirements -- quickly lifting suitcases of all shapes and sizes, a must for keeping airport security lines moving quickly, officials say.

All of the above were represented during my testing process. None of them seemed excessively difficult or irrelevant to the job. Frankly if people are unable to pass the tests they are not the people we want protecting us. I've seen no evidence that TSA intends to dumb down the testing and I would be very upset if they did. What is scariest of all is that the current screens are failing at the same rate as the new applicants. Again, the Mercury News:

Compounding the problem, early statistics show that only 15 percent of current airport screeners -- who are forced to reapply for the federal positions -- meet the government's strict requirements to keep their jobs. Those who are not U.S. citizens are not allowed to reapply.

While that statistic of 15% includes those not eligible due to citizenship or other concerns I find it appalling. The job requirements are extremely minimal. From the TSA site:

Minimum Position Requirements
U.S. citizenship.
To be qualified you must have one of the following:
  • High school diploma, GED or equivalent;

  • At least one year of full-time work experience in security work or aviation screener work; or with x-ray technician work.
Beyond that you must also meet these requirements:

Mental abilities (e.g., reading, writing, speaking, visual observation, mental rotation)
Interpersonal Skills (e.g., customer service, honesty, integrity, dependability)
Physical Abilities (e.g., repeatedly lifting and carrying up to 40 lbs, identifying objects by touch)
Medical Standards:
  • Distant vision correctable to 20/30 or better
  • Near vision correctable to 20/50 or better
  • Color perception (e.g., red, green, blue, yellow, orange, purple, brown, black, white, gray) by passing the Farnsworth D-15 color vision test
  • Hearing as measured by audiometry cannot exceed: a) an average hearing loss of 30 decibels (ANSI) at 500, 1000, 2000, and 3000Hz in each ear, b) single readings of 50 decibels at 2000 or 3000Hz in each ear, c) single reading of 55 decibels at 4000Hz in each ear
  • Adequate joint mobility, dexterity and range of motion, strength, and stability, as well as a complete medical evaluation including cardiovascular system, hypertension, etc.
  • Drug-free as assessed through a drug test
Again, I find these very appropriate and the testing I was subjected to was designed to measure each of these in a way that was very job specific.

After completing the computer tests I had to sign a document that said I was not distracted or bothered during the test. I was then escorted along with four other people to another wing of the hotel. All of the rooms had the beds and other furniture removed (similar to trade shows) and turned into various types of rooms required for the assessment. We were taken to a waiting room and sat down to wait out turn with an HR person for an interview.

After about 30 minutes I was called and was taken to another hotel room. Cubicles had been set up and two HR people were using the space. I was informed that I had passed the computer part of the assessment. My HR rep then asked me a series of written interview questions. Although rather stilted and in no way geared specifically to me the questions did have bearing on the job. After completing them I was told that I could now schedule the second phase of the assessment. This was annoying as I had assumed that the entire process would be completed in one day. I was able to schedule it for the next day so I wasn't too put out. I was given copies of the SP 85P background check and Form 93 Medical History report to fill out. I was told to have those completed upon my return to the center. I was to return at 1pm for medical testing and the physical assessment.

Stay tuned for part 3.
Inside TSA
I've blogged about bad security. You've all read other folks on this topic. Now here is the "inside story".

Man that sounds like something from that old Current Affair show.

I've been looking for some permanent employment since around the start of the year. The economy here in Silicon Valley smells worse than Alviso, which any good Silicon Valley resident knows is the location of the dump and the sewage plant. The current unemployment rate in Santa Clara county is 7.6%. And there are very few job openings. After months of getting no where my strategy evolved to include a possible move back to Southern California. The economy is hotter there. I have friends and family there. But it is hard to get a job long distance.

I did not want to bet the farm on one avenue, so besides the usual job hunting techniques I decided to watch for the TSA hiring at Southern California airports. I figured if all else failed I could get the security job, move, and keep hunting for something I'd rather do. When the opening posted I applied. This began a long hurry up and wait encounter with our Federal Government. Over the next couple of posts I'll walk you through what happened to me and what I think it all means for security and the future of the airlines.

First some ground rules. Part of the process involved an NDA. So there are some things I will not talk about. For example, I can not discuss specifics about the various assessment tests. So if you are wondering about what to bone up on if you want to be a security screener don't ask me. If I find out something I've written about is verboten it is coming down. I had considered doing an anonymous blog about all this but it isn't worth the bother and I don't need that den Beste guy on my butt (just kidding- I like his stuff).

My first impression was pretty favorable. The TSA advertises the jobs extensively on the internet. I knew they were posting the listing on so I set up a job search agent to email me when they went up. They utilized the apply online link to take you to a questionnaire. It asks questions such as:
  • Are you a US citizen?
  • Do you have prior experience?
  • Do you have a high school diploma?
And so on. After completing them the system will make an immediate determination about whether you are qualified. For example, if you are not a citizen it will bounce you. But if all your ducks are in a row you get a message confirming you are a viable candidate. It informs you that the TSA will contact you by phone or email when your assessment is scheduled.

I did all on this online, but you can also go through an 800 number. They really push for you to do things online and that is my preference as well.

A couple of weeks went by and then I received an email telling me I had been scheduled for an assessment. The date it gave was approximately 10 days away at 7:30am. If I wanted that time I was to reply to the email with my with word ACCEPT and applicant ID number as the subject to the message. I could also DECLINE or RESCHEDULE. I accepted and promptly received a second confirmation email. I was impressed that they were using email and internet to drive the process.

The first email also contained lots of information about the process. Here are some of the relevant bits:

The first part of the assessment is a computer-based examination. After the initial examination, you will be asked to perform physical tests such as lifting luggage, and you will have a medical examination. Please wear comfortable clothing and shoes for the testing. There are other tests as well, and there is also an interview that is part of the complete assessment.

Some of this information could also be dug up in the job descriptions posted on the TSA web site. I already knew, for example, that the lifting requirement was 40 pounds. I read this to say you would do all of this in a day. But that proved to be a mistake.

You must be prepared to show two forms of personal identification. Both must have your signature, and one of the two must have your photo. Failure to present the required identification may disqualify you from the assessment process.

I couldn't have guessed this at the time, but you needed these to get through security to even take the various tests.

Bring a voided personal check for direct deposit initiation. Please also bring with you copies of your two most recent pay stubs for the purpose of current salary verification.

I found that request interesting. Apparently they were moving fast.....

You will receive a packet which will contain the following materials that you will need to complete and be prepared to return at the assessment center:

Standard Form 85P: Public Trust, which must be completed prior to arriving at the center. You may either complete this paper form, or you can complete the form on the Internet using the URL: If you have any difficulty completing the SF-85P online form, please contact: Choice Point Customer Service at 800 749 9554, press 2. You are strongly encouraged to use the secure Web-base form.

Standard Form 93 Report of Medical History, which must be completed prior to arriving at the center.

When you receive this packet, please review it carefully. All of the forms in the packet must be legibly completed, and brought with you to the assessment.

As the days found down I waited in vain for this packet. I expected it to come in the mail. Nothing ever came. I took advantage of the web based 85P form and printed it out. Sadly because it was browser based printing the 85P came out looking like crap. I Googled up a PDF of an 85P and brought it along. I was betting they would reject my printed form because it was not just like everyone else's. I could then hand copy the information.

Form 85P is a fairly extensive background check going back 7 years. For any normal person it would be impossible to fill out in person at an interview. So providing an electronic version to fill out is an excellent idea. On top of that the web based form error checked itself, prompting you to fill in key information.

When no packet arrived in the mail I also Googled up the 93 Medical History and filled it out. I knew that getting this type of job required following directions and doing paperwork. I figured that when I arrived I would tell them I never saw this mysterious packet but that I had all the forms.

This missing packet was the first evidence of disconnect between what you read online and reality. But more about that later.

On the assigned day I showed up at the assessment center. It was at a major hotel near LAX. I wanted to be assigned to Ontario airport. It is newer, closer to my relatives, and doesn't have an El Al counter. But apparently all the testing in Southern California was being held at LAX. Several candidates remarked that they had gotten up at 4:00 am to get to LAX for the 7:30 am start time.

I got there about 10 minutes early. A somewhat imposing but jovial man was guarding a pair of escalators that lead up to the next floor. I gave him my name and he looked over a list of candidates. My name wasn't there. He gave me a form to fill out and then had me sit and wait for my name to be called. I was surprised they didn't have my name and decided not to mention my lack of a packet. As it turns out no one received a packet.

I sat around with about 30 other people for about 45 minutes until my name was called. Hurry up and wait was going to be the name of the game. Small groups of 3-5 people were called and sent up the escalators. When my name was called the reason for the delay became apparent. You when up the escalators and then had to proceed through security.

Continued Tomorrow- where you learn about who is doing the testing and what it involves.