The Transportation Security Administration released new numbers Thursday showing 38 explosive detection K-9 teams at US airports have failed certification tests this year designed to check how accurately they can detect explosives.
Of the 38 teams that failed so far this year, TSA said 19 have been able to pass additional tests and return to work. In seven cases the teams were removed or resigned from the program. In three cases the handlers received new dogs.
Eight K-9 teams remain on the sidelines, decertified. For security reasons, the TSA would not identify the airports where those dogs worked.
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The new numbers come one day after an NBC 5 investigation revealed K-9 teams funded by the TSA failed annual certification tests 52 times at 10 large airports between Jan. 1, 2013, and June 15, 2015, the most recent detailed numbers available for those cities.
The records, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request call into question whether some dog teams are training enough to stay at the top of their game.
K-9 teams are charged with helping keep bombs out of airports and off of planes by screening baggage, cargo and passengers for potential threats.
Records show some teams failed to find explosives in tests, while others had too many false alarms that could cause unnecessary airport evacuations.
Dallas Love Field had one of the highest failure rates of the records provided. TSA records show the airport failed four out of 14 tests with a failure rate of nearly 30 percent in that 2013-15 timeframe. In 48 tests over the same time period, teams at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport failed five times, or 10 percent of the time.
The TSA said teams that fail are immediately removed and cannot return to work in the airport unless they can pass those tests.
The agency said K-9 teams performed better in the latter half of 2015 — with a 93 percent passing rate nationwide in the final six months of the year.
D/FW Airport police and Dallas police would not answer questions about what they’ve done to address previous failures at local airports, but other airports did.
At Los Angeles International Airport, records show K-9 Teams failed more than 20 times from January 2013 to June 2015. Airport police at LAX explained they’ve created a training schedule now that ensures all teams get practice time nearly every day.
“You learned along the way as to what you need in order to make your team the strongest it can be,” said Patrick Gannon, LA World Airports deputy executive director.
In their most recent tests, LAX said all airport police teams passed.
“The reality of it is humans are fallible - K-9's are fallible, but we’ve got to work every day for 100 percent compliance,” said Gannon. “We have to remember that this is a game to these working dogs.”
At the nation's busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, records show teams run by Atlanta police passed all TSA tests during that two and a half year period.
“My family travels, your family travels. We have an obligation to be that good,” said K-9 handler, John Wowk.
Wowk said success comes from hours and hours of practice.
Trainers place test explosives in the airport challenging dogs and Wowk to find them. If a dog or handler gets out of sync, the department’s most senior handlers are there to mentor.
“They help you. They help correct an ongoing or existing issue and they help you through it,” said Wowk.
To better understand why K-9 teams had higher failure rates and some airports, NBC 5 Investigates went to Alabama to one of the nation’s top K-9 training centers.
Paul Hammond, a veteran K-9 trainer with AMK9, said teams that don’t practice often are more likely to fail because they lose interest.
“Keeping that dog interested in the game of search is what’s going to help that dog detect the real bomb at the real time and save lives,” said Hammond.
The TSA has made changes, including a new program to hold local airport police departments more accountable for training. Those new standards will apply to local airport police K-9 teams beginning Oct. 1.