Aviation Security:

TSA Has Enhanced Its Explosives Detection Requirements for Checked Baggage, but Additional Screening Actions Are Needed

GAO-11-740: Published: Jul 11, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 12, 2011.

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Explosives represent a continuing threat to aviation security. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), seeks to ensure through the Electronic Baggage Screening Program (EBSP) that checked-baggage-screening technology is capable of detecting explosives. Generally, the explosives detection system (EDS) is used in conjunction with explosives trace detection (ETD) machines to identify and resolve threats in checked baggage. As requested, GAO assessed the extent to which: (1) TSA revised explosives detection requirements and deployed technology to meet those requirements, and (2) TSA's approach to the current EDS acquisition meets best practices for schedules and cost estimates and includes plans for potential upgrades of deployed EDSs. GAO analyzed EDS requirements, compared the EDS acquisition schedule against GAO best practices, and interviewed DHS officials. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in May 2011.

TSA revised EDS explosives detection requirements in January 2010 to better address current threats and plans to implement these requirements in a phased approach. The first phase, which includes implementation of the previous 2005 requirements, is to take years to fully implement. However, deploying EDSs that meet 2010 requirements could prove difficult given that TSA did not begin deployment of EDSs meeting 2005 requirements until 4 years later in 2009. As of January 2011, some number of the EDSs in TSA's fleet are detecting explosives at the level established in 2005. The remaining EDSs in the fleet are configured to meet the 1998 requirements because TSA either has not activated the included software or has not installed the needed hardware and software to allow these EDSs to meet the 2005 requirements. Developing a plan to deploy and operate EDSs to meet the most recent requirements could help ensure EDSs are operating most effectively and should improve checked-baggage screening. However, TSA has faced challenges in procuring the first 260 EDSs to meet 2010 requirements. For example, due to the danger associated with some explosives, TSA and DHS encountered challenges in developing simulants and collecting data on the explosives' physical and chemical properties needed by vendors and agencies to develop detection software and test EDSs prior to the current acquisition. Also, TSA's decision to pursue EDS procurement during data collection complicated both efforts and resulted in a delay of over 7 months for the current acquisition. Completing data collection for each phase of the 2010 requirements prior to pursuing EDS procurements that meet those requirements could help TSA avoid additional schedule delays. TSA has established a schedule for the current EDS acquisition, but it does not fully comply with best practices, and TSA has not developed a plan to upgrade its EDS fleet. For example, the schedule is not reliable because it does not reflect all planned program activities and does not include a timeline to deploy EDSs or plans to procure EDSs to meet subsequent phases of the 2010 requirements. Developing a reliable schedule would help TSA better monitor and oversee the progress of the EDS acquisition. TSA officials stated that to meet the 2010 requirements, TSA will likely upgrade many of the current fleet of EDSs as well as the first 260 EDS machines to be purchased under the current acquisition. However, TSA has no plan in place outlining how it will approach these upgrades. Because TSA is implementing the 2010 requirements in a phased approach, the same EDS machines may need to be upgraded multiple times. TSA officials stated that they were confident the upgrades could be completed on deployed machines. However, without a plan, it will be difficult for TSA to provide reasonable assurance that the upgrades will be feasible or cost-effective. GAO recommends that TSA, among other things, develop a plan to ensure that new machines, as well as those machines currently deployed in airports, will be operated at the levels in established requirements, collect explosives data before initiating new procurements, and develop a reliable schedule for the EBSP. DHS concurred with all of GAO's recommendations and has initiated actions to implement them.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: We found that TSA's Baggage Screening Program (EBSP) current life cycle cost estimate did not reflect anticipated costs for purchasing Explosive Detection Systems (EDS's) that met 2010 requirements. Specifically, the EBSP did not yet have an up-to-date approved life-cycle cost estimate in place, and as a result, DHS had no reliable basis for understanding how much the program will cost. As a result, we recommended that TSA ensure that key elements of the program's final cost estimate reflect critical issues, such as the potential cost impacts resulting from schedule slippage identified once an integrated master schedule for the EBSP has been developed in accordance with the nine best practices identified by GAO for preparing a schedule. In April 2012, TSA reported that it had finalized its updated EBSP life cycle cost estimate to incorporate costs with enhanced detection. Once the integrated master schedule for EBSP is completed, which TSA reported it plans to have completed by September 2013, TSA stated that it will be able to analyze risks to costs and schedules, including potential cost impacts resulting from schedule slippage. To fully address this recommendation, TSA needs to complete and fully document the efforts it has underway and ensure that the program?s final cost estimate reflects the critical issues identified by GAO.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that TSA takes a comprehensive and cost-effective approach to the procurement and deployment of EDSs that meet the 2010 EDS requirements and any subsequent revisions, the Assistant Secretary for TSA should ensure that key elements of the program's final cost estimate reflect critical issues, such as the potential cost impacts resulting from schedule slippage identified once an integrated master schedule for the Electronic Baggage Screening Program has been developed in accordance with the nine best practices identified by GAO for preparing a schedule.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: We found that TSA did not have a schedule in place for the Baggage Screening Program (EBSP) and had not established a reliable schedule for the current Explosive Detection System (EDS) acquisition. While there is not an integrated master schedule (IMS) for the entire EBSP, TSA has established a schedule for the current EDS acquisition. However, this schedule does not fully comply with the nine best practices identified by GAO for preparing a schedule because, for example, TSA officials did not complete a schedule risk analysis. As a result, we recommended that TSA develop and maintain an integrated master schedule for the entire EBSP in accordance with the nine best practices identified by GAO for preparing a schedule. In April 2012, TSA stated that it had secured contractor resources to support development of an IMS in accordance with GAO and industry best practices and that it anticipated completion of this schedule by September 2013. In October 2012, TSA stated that it plans to complete the development of the EBSP IMS by September 2013. To fully address this recommendation, TSA needs to complete the efforts it has underway and ensure that this schedule is implemented in accordance with the nine best practice identified by GAO for preparing a schedule.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that TSA takes a comprehensive and cost-effective approach to the procurement and deployment of EDSs that meet the 2010 EDS requirements and any subsequent revisions, the Assistant Secretary for TSA should develop and maintain an integrated master schedule for the entire Electronic Baggage Screening Program in accordance with the nine best practices identified by GAO for preparing a schedule.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that vendors of Explosive Detection Systems (EDS's) reported concerns about the extent to which TSA is communicating effectively about the current procurement. Specifically, vendors expressed concerns about the timeliness in which TSA responded to their questions or the manner in which TSA communicated important schedule changes. As a result, we recommended that TSA establish a process to communicate information to EDS vendors in a timely manner regarding TSA's EDS acquisition process, including information such as changes to the schedule. In April 2012, TSA provided information on a number of actions it had taken to improve communication with EDS vendors. For example, TSA issued 16 public notifications that contained projected schedules and program updates. In October 2012, TSA finalized its Explosives Detection System Competitive Procurement Qualification Program Communications Plan. Additionally, TSA's new EBSP acquisition plan uses a qualified products list, which awards contracts only to vendors whose equipment has already been certified. Because the concerns expressed by vendors were linked to TSA conducting data collection concurrent with the acquisition process, we reported that challenges collecting data on certain explosives led to delays in the acquisition schedule that were not always communicated to vendors in a timely manner. Now that development of EDS has been separated from the acquisition process, and only certified EDS already placed on the qualified products list are to be considered for current and future acquisitions, we consider his recommendation closed.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that TSA takes a comprehensive and cost-effective approach to the procurement and deployment of EDSs that meet the 2010 EDS requirements and any subsequent revisions, the Assistant Secretary for TSA should establish a process to communicate information to EDS vendors in a timely manner regarding TSA's EDS acquisition, including information such as changes to the schedule.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that TSA has experienced a number of challenges related to collecting some explosives data needed to procure and deploy EDS's that meet the 2010 requirements. These data are needed both by vendors to develop EDS detection software and by the Transportation Security Laboratory for the certification testing process and includes such information as the physical and chemical properties of explosives. As a result, we recommended that TSA develop a plan to ensure that TSA has the explosives data needed for each of the planned phases of the 2010 EDS requirements before starting the procurement process for new EDS or upgrades included in each applicable phase. In April 2012, TSA reported that it had modified its acquisition strategy to require vendors to notify TSA that they have completed certification to meet the next level of detection in order for the vendor to be included in the next acquisition. In September 2012, TSA finalized a new Acquisition Plan for the EBSP that uses a qualified products list, which would require vendors to submit only EDS that have already been certified for consideration in any forthcoming acquisitions of EDS. This plan, according to TSA, separates the data collection and certification from procurement execution and was adopted to ensure all data collection and testing activities associated with meeting detection requirements are completed prior to allowing any vendor to submit equipment into the acquisition process. This recommendation is now closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that TSA takes a comprehensive and cost-effective approach to the procurement and deployment of EDSs that meet the 2010 EDS requirements and any subsequent revisions, the Assistant Secretary for TSA should develop a plan to ensure that TSA has the explosives data needed for each of the planned phases of the 2010 EDS requirements before starting the procurement process for new EDSs or upgrades included in each applicable phase.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: We found that TSA had not developed new screening protocols or deployed additional equipment to address the potential gap in screening capability between explosive detection systems (EDS) and explosive trace detection (ETD) if new EDSs with different requirements were deployed. Because TSA decided to revise the explosives detection requirements for EDS's prior to revising the ETD requirements, the differences in the requirements may affect TSA's capability to detect the 2010-required levels until TSA identifies technologies or protocols needed to address the potential gap. Without a plan to ensure that secondary-screening devices or protocols are in place to resolve EDS alarms if EDSs are deployed with additional capability, it will be difficult for TSA to provide assurances that the potential capability gap has been resolved. As a result, we recommended that TSA develop a plan to ensure that screening devices or protocols are in place to resolve EDS alarms if EDS are deployed that detect a broader set of explosives than existing ETD machines used to resolve EDS screening alarms. In April 2012, TSA reported that it had convened a working group to assess capability gaps for secondary screening technology, evaluate current technology capabilities against the capabilities of future EDS, and prepare a plan to procure any additional technology required to ensure alarms can be resolved. In March 2013, TSA reported that it was in the process of revising its Checked Baggage Alarm Resolution Plan and that the final plan will outline a strategy to procure technologies and implement procedures for enhanced detection at all levels of checked baggage screening, which TSA reported that it planned to finalize by the end of April 2013. To fully address this recommendation, TSA needs to finish developing the plan to ensure that devices or protocols are in place to resolve EDS alarms, and provide a copy of this plan to GAO for independent review.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that TSA takes a comprehensive and cost-effective approach to the procurement and deployment of EDSs that meet the 2010 EDS requirements and any subsequent revisions, the Assistant Secretary for TSA should develop a plan to ensure that screening devices or protocols are in place to resolve EDS alarms if EDSs are deployed that detect a broader set of explosives than existing ETD machines used to resolve EDS screening alarms.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: We found that TSA did not have a plan in place outlining how it will upgrade deployed Explosive Detection Systems (EDS's) to fully meet the 2010 requirements. As noted in our report, not all deployed EDS units met these requirements. As a result, we recommended that TSA develop a plan to deploy EDS's that meets the most recent EDS explosives detection requirements and ensure that new machines, as well as machines deployed in airports, will be operated at the levels established in the 2010 requirements. Further, this plan should include the estimated costs for new machines and upgrading deployed machines, and the timeframes for procuring and deploying new machines and upgrading deployed machines. In April 2012, TSA reported that it had developed a detection upgrade plan and that this plan was currently undergoing leadership review and would be available before the close of the third quarter of FY 2012. Further, TSA had awarded contracts as early as August 2011 with EDS vendors to implement the upgrades across the current fleet, without a plan in place for fully meeting the current requirements. As of March 2013, TSA has continued the process of upgrading deployed EDS and reported that purchases of new EDS that will meet the 2010 requirements are in various stages of the EDS competitive procurement. To fully address this recommendation, TSA needs to finalize its upgrade plan and ensure that it includes the estimated costs for new machines and upgrading deployed machines, and the timeframes for procuring and deploying new machines and upgrading deployed machines.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that TSA takes a comprehensive and cost-effective approach to the procurement and deployment of EDSs that meet the 2010 EDS requirements and any subsequent revisions, the Assistant Secretary for TSA should develop a plan to deploy EDSs that meet the most recent EDS explosives-detection requirements and ensure that new machines, as well as machines deployed in airports, will be operated at the levels established in those requirements. This plan should include the estimated costs for new machines and upgrading deployed machines, and the time frames for procuring and deploying new machines and upgrading deployed machines.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

 

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