Local Airport Gets New Explosives Detection Machines

New tools against terrorism are now in place at Bush Intercontinental Airport, two high-tech machines that detect explosives on passengers in a matter of seconds. Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports.

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"It's a brand-new tool for our toolbox to help us. It's another piece of equipment that's going to help us with security here at the airport."

Jim Marchand is the Federal Security Director for the Transportation Security Administration at Bush Airport and says two telephone booth-sized explosive detection trace portals are now in place and screening random passengers in Terminal E.

"We have the passenger step into it. Puffs of air hit the passenger. The machine then takes the air and analyzes the air, it takes about 17 seconds and then it releases the passenger to go ahead and go forward."

Marschand says the $170,000 machines are in place in 40 of the nation's largest airports and streamline the security process.

"It helps us in that if a passenger does go through this machine we don't have to do secondary screening. In other words, you avoid the pat-down search, you avoid all of the other requirements unless of course they alarm the walk-through metal detector. If they alarm the walk-through metal detector we still have to go through the secondary screening."

The Houston Airport System's Deputy Director for Public Safety and Technology Mark Mancuso says a few seconds inside a machine that puffs air isn't too much to ask for passengers who are already used to thorough security checks.

"What we want to do is make the travel experience as pleasant as possible for everyone, but we have an obligation to make it as safe as possible as well. 17 seconds is not very much time and Houston enjoys among the lowest processing times of any airport in the United States as a matter of fact with regard to the screening process."

The machines can detect minute amounts of an array of explosives and are so sensitive that they can sometimes snare passengers who might have been doing yardwork before heading to the airport.

"Fertilizers much like those that were used at Oklahoma City for that particular bombing might be the same fertilizers you use in your yard and if you were walking around in your yard in those shoes, you might have picked it up on your shoes. You step in here, it will pick up those traces and then we're going to make sure that you don't have something on you that would be detrimental to the traveling public."

Officials say they expect to install more of the explosive detection devices in Houston airports and would eventually like to have one at every security checkpoint.

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