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Air CargoAmerican ShipperNewsRegulationRisk & Compliance

Paws on the ground, nose in the air

U.S. freight forwarders have increasingly embraced canines as part of their technology-driven air cargo security programs.

When it comes to implementing mandatory U.S. air cargo security regulations, freight forwarders have proven adept at deploying the latest detection technologies at their facilities, but one of their most effective tools to date has four paws and a powerful nose.

The Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 mandated the physical screening of cargo flying to and from any U.S. airport using a variety of methods. One of the acceptable ways to screen this cargo is with canines that are provided through Transportation Security Administration (TSA)-certified third parties.

Several years ago, the Washington, D.C.-based Airforwarders Association formed a coalition with other stakeholders to urge TSA and Congress to implement the Third Party Privatized Canine Program (3PK9) as part of the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP).

The 3PK9, which was mandated in the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Bill, began last year and has increasingly become an acceptable and effective method to physically screen air cargo in accordance with the 9/11 Act.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” said Chris Connell, president of Los Angeles-based Commodity Forwarders, which became an early proponent of using canines for air cargo inspections. “We’re simply adopting a process that is used in other types of security operations and bringing it into the air cargo environment.”

Commodity Forwarders, which is part of Kuehne + Nagel (OTCMKTS: KHNGF) and specializes in the handling of fresh fruits and vegetable shipments, began using third-party canines for air cargo inspections earlier this year as part of an array of metal, X-ray and chemical residue detectors in its 16 air cargo facilities. To Connell, the canines are just another form of “technology,” albeit natural.

“Early on in our use of these canines, it was fascinating to watch them work,” Connell said. “It’s about getting their noses in the airflow of the cargo. And when the dogs come to work, they work.” 

Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association, said, “When you look at a CT scan of cargo, the 3D imagery is impressive. When you combine that capability with a dog and other technologies, the bad guys don’t stand a chance.”

Fried said more and more forwarders involved in the TSA Certified Cargo Screening Program are now routinely using canines to screen their air cargo. The association has a Canine Screening Subcommittee that meets monthly and includes forwarders, third-party canine providers and TSA officials. 

More efficient cargo screening

C.H. Robinson’s Des Plaines, Illinois warehouse, which is located about five miles north of Chicago O’Hare International Airport, became an independent certified cargo screening facility (ICCSF) in 2012 under CCSP. In 2019, the forwarder introduced canines as part of its air cargo screening technology portfolio at this facility.

“Technology and the canines work together to create an efficient screening process,” said Matt Castle, vice president of air freight products and services for C.H. Robinson (NASDAQ: CHRW)

Currently, C.H. Robinson’s Des Plaines facility uses two ETD (explosive trace detection) devices and one dual view AT-X-ray to screen air cargo.

“Although these devices are useful and efficient at detecting possible explosive devices within air cargo, they’re not useful for palletized items since this must be done at a piece-by-piece level,” Castle explained. “Taking apart and putting back together palletized cargo significantly disrupts the efficiency of the CCSP and puts kinks in the flow of commerce.”

When C.H. Robinson deployed TSA’s 3PK9 program, it helped eliminate the breakdown of air cargo pallets for inspections, Castle said.

A specially trained canine inspects this pallet of cargo at C.H. Robinson’s Des Plaines, Illinois warehouse. [Photo Credit: C.H. Robinson]

If a potential threat, however, is detected by either canine or scanning machines, the cargo can be immediately removed for a secondary inspection.

“Harnessing the canine’s enhanced odor sensitivity and their unique social relationship with humans, canines have proven to be an effective and reliable method to identify explosive threats,” Castle said.

A canine’s nose has an estimated 300 million sensory receptors that can detect a smell at parts per million. “Their unique biological complexity allows canines to distinguish what and where a smell is coming from to a level that both machines and humans can’t,” Castle said.

In 2010, the U.S. Defense Department acknowledged that it spent $19 billion over six years to develop bomb-detection technology that replicates the olfactory receptors of canines and failed. 

Canines for hire

Forwarders that use canines for air cargo inspections will generally enter contracts with TSA-approved, third-party providers to perform this work.

“For us as a forwarding company to take on the responsibility of training and maintaining our own canines doesn’t work,” Connell said. “Our focus is on handling the cargo.”

One of the biggest third-party providers of canine teams to the U.S. air forwarding industry is New York-based MSA Security. The firm has certified more than 100 TSA canine teams and a presence in each major air cargo hub across the country.

Both canines and handlers must undergo intensive training before they are certified to perform air cargo security work.

Training starts when a canine is about a year-and-a-half old. Shepherds and Labrador retrievers are generally preferred for their larger size and attentive demeanor.

“If we’re going to deploy canines in the cargo environment, then we want them trained for that environment,” said Marc Murphy, MSA Security’s director of air cargo and aviation. “We have the infrastructure in place to train our canines on live explosives.”

Each canine is paired with a single handler, many of whom hail from military and law enforcement backgrounds. “They go through the training phase together and the canine becomes part of the handler’s family,” Murphy said.  

MSA Security has a 73,000-square-foot canine training center in Windsor, Connecticut, of which 50,000 square feet is dedicated to air cargo-oriented training. The company also has satellite training facilities of about 12,000 square feet each located near New York’s JFK, O’Hare, Los Angeles and Memphis airports.

Both canines and handlers must undergo routine refresher training that is conducted at MSA Security’s facilities. “It’s a very rigid requirement and is closely monitored by TSA,” Murphy said.

MSA Security maintains a 24-hour scheduling department, which forwarders can contact to set up their appointments for canine cargo screening.

Murphy said his company saw an immediate need for canine inspections earlier this year from the larger forwarders. “I think many of the smaller forwarders wanted to see how the program worked out first, but we’re expecting to see more of them getting involved at the start of 2020,” he added. 

Maintaining integrity

On Aug. 1, 2010, TSA imposed a mandate for all air cargo transported by passenger aircraft to be scanned for explosives prior to loading. Many air forwarders, who once relied on airport facilities to perform this task, started investing in their own TSA-approved cargo screening technologies and procedures.

Large air freight forwarders, such as C.H. Robinson, continue to closely monitor recommendations from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which establishes global standards and practices for international air transport.

“By utilizing TSA’s 3PK9 program we are staying ahead of the upcoming deadline, June 2021, when 100% of cargo loaded on freighters must be screened,” Castle said.

Fried anticipates an increasing demand among air forwarders for third-party canine inspection services during a time when other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Postal Service, will be expanding their use of canine inspections.

In addition to MSA Security, other large TSA-approved, third-party canine services providers include AMK9, K2 Canine and Global K9 Protection Services. Numerous other smaller canine service providers have applied to join the TSA program. These dogs and their handlers are currently deployed at 140 forwarder and other third-party air cargo facilities throughout the U.S., according to TSA.

“TSA is keenly aware of this and it’s one of the reasons the agency feels the third-party canine industry will be able to meet the demand,” Fried said. “But we need to ensure the training continues to be adequate and the standards are met.”

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Chris Gillis

Located in the Washington, D.C. area, Chris Gillis primarily reports on regulatory and legislative topics that impact cross-border trade. He joined American Shipper in 1994, shortly after graduating from Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., with a degree in international business and economics.

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