Spokane Airport to Form Bomb-Dog Unit

Aug. 18--Spokane airport officials say they'll form a three-dog bomb-detection unit to improve security using $120,000 in federal money.

But that decision has raised the hackles of the Spokane Airport Police Association, which opposes the plan to hire civilian handlers for the bomb-sniffing dogs.

The three dogs will be provided through the Transportation Security Administration Explosives Detection Canine Team program.

The TSA provides the dogs and training for handlers free to the nation's larger airports. Spokane airport officials will use most of its first-year funds to buy three SUVs for the teams to transport the dogs around the airport. Though no date to launch the unit has been set, the 15 members of the airport police association have filed a grievance, saying using civilian handlers violates their contract.

Association President Travis Bunke said the contract requires all airport law enforcement be performed by uniformed officers.

"The association filed the grievance, given that we have grave concerns about the safety of the flying public when civilians are hired to perform law enforcement jobs," Bunke said.

Airport officials say they're holding off on the handler decision until they review their options. Airport staff recommended to board members a month ago that civilian handlers be used because they're less expensive than uniformed officers.

Airport Police Chief Pete Troyer agrees with the idea of using civilians.

"My goal is to get the dogs here, as a safety net for the officers who respond to the numerous unattended bags found around the airport, and to protect the public."

Other airports have made the shift from uniformed handlers to trained civilians, including Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., Troyer said.

He said law enforcement once opposed using civilian dispatchers and that's now common. The same goal, of using less expensive personnel, makes sense in the case of bomb-dog teams, Troyer said.

If a dog detects explosives in a suitcase, uniformed officers would be brought in to take over, he said.

Bunke countered that the dogs sometimes will work in airport garages and if they detect possible explosives, civilians wouldn't have the authority to issue a warrant and search the vehicle. "We've also researched other airports and the vast majority of those in the greater Western U.S. use police officers (with dogs)," he said. Those include airports in Boise, Portland and Seattle.

Once the staffing issue is decided, airport officials will need to send the handlers for 10 weeks of TSA-provided training in Texas.

During a meeting Wednesday, the airport board approved spending $97,000 of the federal cash on three Chevrolet Tahoes to be used as transport rigs for each K9 team. The vehicles would allow the handlers mobility for handling incidents anywhere on airport property, airport officials said.

Troyer said the dog teams could also respond, when requested, to incidents elsewhere in the area.

Under initial plans, the dogs would stay in kennels at their handlers' homes.

The TSA program will provide the airport $120,000 each year, said Troyer. In the future, that money likely would pay the handlers' salaries and cover other expenses such as veterinary care.

He doubted, however, that $120,000 would fully cover three salaries plus benefits.

Even so, the airport would face an even higher price tag if it chose to add three uniformed officers as handlers. The airport police force's lowest salary rung starts at $34,800, and that doesn't include benefits, he said.

This would be the second time Spokane's airport used bomb-detection dogs. A group of German shepherds were brought on between 1976 and the early 1980s, according to newspaper records. Bunke said uniformed airport officers handled those dogs up until the program ended in 1984.

Interim Airport Executive Director Irv Reed said the dogs will be an added layer of airport security. They'll be called upon if the TSA's bomb-detection machines ever malfunction, he said.

Airport officials say the closest they came to finding a bomb prior to the 2001 terrorist attacks was discovering World War II-vintage ordnance buried underground on airport property away from the terminal.

Since the TSA took over, Troyer said, he's not allowed to disclose whether a bomb has been detected at the airport.