Piarco Airport officers cite security concerns

(Trinidad Guardian) Security officers attached to the Piarco International Airport fear there may be a major security/safety breach in the future. This is because three hold baggage x-ray machines, which have cost taxpayers $10 million, can only detect explosive devices and not narcotics, firearms and ammunition.

Airport Authority of T&T (AATT) security officers have also reported weapons being misfired and jammed and ammunition used for training failing to discharge.

These issues were raised in a 12-page letter sent by the Estate Police Association (EPA) vice chairman (airport branch) Anthony Braithwaite to AATT general manager Hayden Newton and chairman Nigel Ferguson since January 23, which the T&T Guardian obtained a copy of.

In the letter, the EPA highlighted deficiencies in firearm training, defective firearms and rounds being issued for use by officers, unsterile persons being allowed access to the sterile holding bay, inability to review CCTT footage in a timely manner, manpower shortage and concerns with the three hold baggage x-ray machines.

EPA second vice president Ancil John-Nicholas admitted that the AATT purchased the three hold baggage x-ray machines in late 2014, which was now a cause for concern and posed a security breach at the airport. John-Nicholas said the machines sat idly by at the airport for two years until their warranty expired and were only put into operation this year. Spare parts for servicing of the machines were also purchased.

“What was even more alarming was that when a firearm was introduced into the x-ray chamber of the machines, the image was only displayed for a few seconds and could not be retrieved again or stored for later review. It was also communicated that the machines in question were not configured to detect either narcotics or arms and ammunition,” John-Nicholas revealed.

The machine, he said, was designed not to have an x-ray operator present to observe the contents of bags. Rather, they were manufactured to detect an “improvised explosive device” and isolates the suspect bag by sending it along another route to be dealt with by relevant security personnel. As a result of this security flaw, John-Nicholas said the AATT hooked up its old x-ray machine to work in tandem with the three machines to detect for guns, drugs and ammunition.

“From our information, the airport resident specialist, who has over 30 years’ experience in this field, was not consulted in purchasing these machines,” he said.

“If this old machine should suddenly malfunction, will Customs and Excise and AATT’s security officers search baggage manually for narcotics, guns and ammunition? This will certainly be time consuming and counter-productive, especially when you have a number of flights leaving and entering the country. Why did we spend so much of taxpayers’ money to buy these machines which are not serving its purpose?”

Questioned about defective firearms being issued to security officers, John-Nicholas said during training organised by the AATT it was discovered that several guns did not function.

He said some of the weapons constantly jammed and misfired, while others were misaligned and were highly inaccurate when fired.

Asked what the AATT’s response to their concerns was, John-Nicholas said they failed to address the matters.

“These issues now pose a threat to the public, passengers and its members. We are of a firm belief that there is a management problem at the AATT.”

In a letter dated May 11, 2017, the EPA’s chairman of the local branch, Vedesh Bhagwandeen, wrote to Ferguson asking for a meeting to have these matters resolved. But when contacted by the T&T Guardian, Bhagwandeen said Ferguson was yet to acknowledge his letter.

Contacted by the T&T Guardian, former transport minister Stephen Cadiz admitted that the three scanners cost approximately $10 million. This cost included installation and commissioning by the vendor.

“The purpose of those machines were to stop the security guards from rummaging through luggage. I remember visiting the airport one day and I asked to see the machines and I saw that they were physically installed but inoperative, with reasons only known by the security people (Customs and Excise),” Cadiz said.

He assured that the machines were tendered for and bought with the required specifications by the airport.

“The vendor is a well-respected one that deals with all government agencies, but I was never informed by anybody that the machines were not at the specifications as required.”

Cadiz admitted that every time scanners were installed at the airports or seaports there was always some reason as to why they failed to work properly.

“Every single time we try to beef the security up it was always an issue. Nobody wanted to be able to properly monitor stuff going in and out the country,” Cadiz said.

“For the life of me, I could not figure out what is the problem, but it is time that somebody asks what is the actual problem with electronic scanning in the country. It is absolutely ridiculous, because it always gets pushed back with the union or a particular agency as to why they can’t use it, but everywhere in the world they are using the same scanners and it works properly, so there has to be a reason as to why they don’t want these machines working properly,” Cadiz said.

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