Aviation security is a risk-based industry that must constantly juggle the pressures of being accurate (finding all threats) and being efficient (getting passengers through checkpoints at a reasonable speed for on-time departures). The current solutions to this juggling problem—being accurate and fast—rest almost entirely on having a reliable, well-trained workforce combined with constant oversight and assessment. The X-ray operators must be able to efficiently complete successful searches. This puts a lot of pressure on the workforce, making it vital to hire the right people and have an appropriate ongoing training regimen.

The first step to maximizing each security organization’s workforce is to ensure the hiring processes are optimized – making sure that those you hire are best suited to excel in the role prior to investing time, money, and training resources. The X-ray operator role is arguably the most critical, and organizations should selectively hire individuals who excel at this particular cognitive ability. Kedlin Screening International’s (KSI) XRAY Screener (XRS) software provides a simple tool to quickly and reliably predict who is best suited for this position.

The second step is to train the workforce to ensure each individual is performing at their best. KSI’s Chief Science Officer, Steve Mitroff, and his research team at The George Washington University recently published a paper that reviews several key aspects to training. Specifically, they argue for three types of training that are all critical for successful security operations: knobology, object identification, and strategy.

Knobology training: The first area of training is the understanding of how best to use the available equipment. Vendors provide operators with a wide variety of tools, filters, views, etc.—but none of it will be effective if the operators do not know how to use it. Many training programs focus on this aspect of the job, making sure the operators know what the various functions do and how best to use them.

Object Identification training: The second key area of training is instructing operators on what threats look like in the X-ray environment. It is critical to know what prohibited items look like and what allowed items look like so that threats can be appropriately detected. Many training programs involve protocols for helping operators learn what various threats look like in the X-ray images.

Strategy training: Finally, the third aspect of training is teaching operators how best to search. Beyond knowing what the equipment features do and what to search for, operators should have appropriate strategies and techniques for how to optimally search. Some approaches, or strategies, will be more effective than others.

All three of these forms of training are vital for reducing risk at a security checkpoint, however the vast majority of training programs focus on knobology and object identification training while neglecting strategy training. Dr. Mitroff and his team argue in their recent review paper that there is a simple reason for this—strategy training is hard. It is difficult to teach X-ray operators a generalized skill that does not rely on specific technology or specific threat images. However, Dr. Mitroff argues that’s not reason enough to neglect it: “while strategy training may have a longer learning curve and take more effort to implement, it has the most long-term benefits for the industry by making the screening workforce more effective and efficient.”

Knobology and object identification are critical aspects to the training, but they are entirely dependent on the particular situation a particular operator is in at that moment. When a vendor introduces a new function e.g., moving to 3D image analysis), the prior training is obsolete and training has to start over. When a bad actor invents a novel threat to sneak through a checkpoint, prior object identification training will fall short. By definition, object identification training has to be reactive—once a new threat is discovered, then that needs to be conveyed to the workforce.

Alternatively, strategy training can teach operators overall ways to approach their searches that can lead to improved success. Take the case where two operators are searching a passenger’s bag. The first operator does a consistent search pattern (e.g., zig-zag back and forth from the top left to the bottom right). The second operator does the same search, but without a consistent pattern—they look at various objects in the bag and attend to different areas. When both operators come across a possible prohibited item but then decide it is not a threat (e.g., a small toothpaste tube), they should then continue their search to find potential threats. The first, consistent searcher will simply continue on their pre-set path and do an exhaustive search of the bag. The second, inconsistent searcher does not have a preset path and will be more likely to re-search areas they have already viewed (wasting time) and will be more likely to not do an exhaustive search of the whole bag (increasing risk of missing a threat). Consistent search predicts better search accuracy, so it may be possible to teach operators this particular strategy (and others).

KSI provides aviation security organizations with an innovative, turn-key selection and assessment tool, and are currently engaged in leveraging the tool to provide to guide all three key aspects of effective training.