Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Friday, March 25, 2005

The "Bomb Dog" Fallacy

Finally it's happened to an agency with one of the best explosive detecting dog team programs in the world - the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). One of its dog teams (dog plus bomb technician/handler) is reported to have failed to alert on a test device that had been carelessly left behind after a training exercise at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

Scandalous? No, not at all (in spite of what the anonymous federal counterterrorism official cited in the article said).

Ask military and civilian law enforcement bomb squad commanders with explosive detecting dog programs, and they will be the first to say that "bomb dogs" sometimes fail to alert. They will also say that it is a serious mistake to rely exclusively on the reactions or non-reactions of an explosive detecting dog when searching for explosive devices. The handler and dog are a team. The handler must know the team member on the other end of the leash to know if s/he is working properly or not.

There is a difference between "full alert" and "showing an interest" in a suspicious package. The failure of the dog to fully alert on the package does not mean the handler can't or won't investigate further if s/he is a Redstone-certified technician or ask a certified bomb technician or explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technician to make a safe evaluation of the item. A competent, experienced handler does not rely fully on the dog.

Yet with increasing frequency, we are seeing private sector overreliance on bomb dogs.

For example, a Spokesman-Review article by Rob McDonald published on November 14, 2002, headlined "Classes resume today after EWU bomb scare", contained this statement: "'They have not found anything,' Eastern President Stephen Jordan said Wednesday night, as officers with bomb-sniffing dogs finished exterior sweeps of buildings on campus."

Why is the private sector relying more on "bomb dogs"? Because evacuations and exhaustive searches by trained, qualified searchers and equally well-trained and qualified explosive detecting dog teams take time. Time is money. Sadly, many decision-makers in industry and government opt for dog searches. They're faster and therefore cheaper...until there is a detonation after the dog fails to alert and a handler fails to inspect further.

Selling dogs touted as "bomb detecting dogs" to private industry is a growth business, particularly after September 11, 2001. This Fortune Small Business article includes these statements: "A more concrete benefit that MSA touts is reducing unnecessary evacuations. Dogs can check out suspicious packages, avoiding the need to call in a bomb squad." As the LAPD-LAX incident cited above shows, dogs can miss.

Overrelying on the dog to avoid calling a bomb squad is dangerous. If a package is suspicious, the absence of a dog's alert or showing an interest does not clear the package. Clearing the suspicious package is the job for military EOD technicians or fully and currently certified public safety bomb technicians.

Explosive detecting dog teams can be one valuable component of an explosives countermeasures security program. But relying exclusively on explosive detecting dog teams to the exclusion of other more appropriate safety measures is reckless and dangerous.


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