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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
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K-9s work to sniff explosives at Tampa airport

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The decoy waited behind closed doors for a crowd to emerge from Tampa International Airport's airside shuttle. Taking up a backpack and carrying a water bottle, he melded with the crowd heading toward security screening.

In the long, winding maze leading toward the checkpoint, John Forbes, a Transportation Security Administration employee, made his way toward the X-ray machines.

Up ahead, Explosives Detection K-9 Handler Brandy Smith walked Guiness down the rows, against the crowd.

The demure 40-pound Labrador mix eyeballed passengers lugging carry-­on bags and purses, occasionally sniffing.

The moment Forbes walked past, Guiness alerted, lunging toward the training decoy, then sitting next to his suspect. No aggression, no panic, no barking. His immediate paycheck: a few moments tugging at a squeaky toy.

Guiness is one of four explosives-detection dogs at Tampa International to screen passengers as they make their way toward the security checkpoint. About 100 screening dogs work for TSA throughout the country.

Passengers who get a casual sniff are sometimes fast-tracked through security using the TSA's new precheck line, skipping the removal of jackets, shoes and laptops.

“That sniff deems them low risk” and allows security personnel to keep the line moving faster, said TSA spokesman Mark Howell.

Charles Cloyd, TSA K-9 supervisor and a onetime handler, said: “Right now, we are using them at the larger, busier airports. They are deployed based on risk.

“These dogs are excellent,” Cloyd said. “Their capabilities exceed electronic detection, and their mobility is another advantage.”

The dogs are carefully vetted before going through training, which takes place at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

If a dog shows signs of aggression or a lack of drive, it's out.

The dogs are medium-sized so passengers don't perceive them as intimidating, Cloyd said.

“People like them and tend to feel safer knowing they are sniffing their fellow passengers,” he said.

“These dogs can detect parts per trillion of explosives,” Cloyd said.

And it's not just actual explosives, but also components of explosives, Cloyd said.

The dogs are trained specifically for this task, not for subduing other criminals or tracking down drugs. But they may detect someone with marijuana if it carries the scent of fertilizer, a potential bomb-making compound.

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For nearly three months, Nathan Vitoritt went through training with his dog, Llangley, the two learning to work as partners in seeking out and halting anyone with the scent of explosives.

Llangley was in the first class of K-9 pups trained for the TSA program, which began in 2011.

Each of those dogs was named for a victim of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Llangley was named for Mary Lou Langley, who died in the World Trade Center.

The dogs in that first class are distinguished in that the first letter in each of their names is doubled.

Llangley is a 44-pound Vizslador — a Vizsla and Labrador mix — and the only female dog at Tampa International.

On the “baseball cards” Vitoritt hands airport visitors, he calls the short-haired gold dog “a diva” with high energy and a great nose.

Smith, who like the other K-9 handlers, cares for her dog full time, says Guiness has a great personality, but even at home, he's a working dog first and a pet second.

“When he gets home, he relaxes. He's pretty much a lazy bum,” Smith said.

But at the airport, he's all business, she said.

That includes picking up a scent even if the suspect has already passed through an area.

The dogs' training allows them to follow that scent through the terminal to locate a suspect.

“It's like smoke,” Cloyd said. “Even after you can't see it anymore, it lingers.”

In all, TSA employs about 800 K-9s across the country. Most are used to sniff cargo and vehicles at airports.

 

yhammett@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7127

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