Thursday, January 31, 2013

Transporation Security Administration trains Newark Liberty International Airport (KEWR) screeners on checkpoint etiquette

UNION — Empathy. Good listening skills. A modulated speaking voice, moderately paced so that it’s not so fast that it’s unintelligible or uncaring, or not so slow that it sounds condescending.

To the Transporation Security Administration, a smooth-running checkpoint is a secure checkpoint, free of the kind of chaos that can distract screeners from properly examining X-ray images, detecting anomalies during pat-downs or routing out prohibited objects while inspecting carry-on bags.

So teaching screeners how to communicate effectively, particularly when dealing with a passenger whose anger or anxiety threatens to create a scene, is a key element of their classroom training.

“If we don’t have the chaos at the checkpoint, then the officers who are working there can see if there is a threat,” said Jim Gruter, a lead transportation screening instructor with the TSA in New Jersey.

Gruter and fellow trainer Dan Carew, both former screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport, were instructing a class of 22 screening trainees Wednesday at the agency’s office in Union Township. Posters on the classroom walls extorted the virtues of “verbal deflection” (parrying an insult), “command presence” (looking good in uniform), “active listening,” and other authority enhancing techniques.

The training class was a racially diverse group of 11 men and 11 women, mainly from northern New Jersey, some straight out of college, some changing careers.

One trainee, Crystal Colon, 23, of Jersey City, said she had been working in sales for PNC Bank, but joined the TSA to launch her career in criminal justice. For Colon, the training has been a learning experience in terms of just how much screeners need to know to do their job.

“I travel a lot and I’ve never had an experience with the TSA, but now I realize just how much it does entail.”`

Trainees are taught to communicate not only with the public, but also with their colleagues.

At one point, Gruter asked 21-year-old trainee Ju-Quana Johnson of East Orange to role-play as a TSA supervisor opposite his own portrayal of a screener who was outraged at having just been told to be more polite to passengers. Gruter gesticulated wildly, his face red, but the young woman kept her poise, reminding her pretend-subordinate in calm but deliberate terms of the importance of positive customer relations.

“I felt like I was ready to be up there, because this is what Jim (Gruter) and Dan (Carew) have been teaching me to do,” said Johnson, a former nursing major at Essex County Community College, who joined the TSA this year after deciding it would be a good stepping stone for a career in law enforcement.

Throughout its history, and especially with the advent of full-body scanners and “enhanced” pat downs, TSA officers have been accused of overly intrusive, even abusive searches. By the same token, screeners have been subject to subtle or overt hostility from passengers outraged by their own experiences or high-profile incidents.

But one point the trainers made was for screeners not to let hostile passengers get under their skin, reminding the trainees that flying can be stressful and that passengers may bring all kinds of emotional baggage to a checkpoint apart from their carry-ons.

“A lot of times we take it personally,” Carew told the group. “But you’ve got to realize where they’re coming from.”

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