Rail passengers across the country may have noticed more police and heavily armed guards on trains today as part of a national rail security exercise, but they probably did not realize that the most specially trained officer at the station might be the Labrador retriever standing on the platform.
The Department of Homeland Security and Amtrak today held Operation RAILSAFE, which stands for Regional Alliance Including Local, State and Federal Efforts. It included the deployment of increased security patrols, more passenger bag inspections and K-9 units, including "Vapor-Wake Detection" (VWD) dogs that can hone in on explosives that may be on a moving person or bag passing through the station.
Amtrak police have been increasing their use of K-9s and getting more vapor wake dogs deployed on trains as more of the dogs are trained.
While traditional bomb detection dogs have the ability to sniff out explosives and residues that may be on a person or an item at close range, the vapor wake dogs can sense the explosives at a greater range for as long as 15 minutes and track down where the scent is coming from.
The term "vapor wake" comes from the fact that air swirls behind people as they walk, according to Dr. Robert Gillette, director of the Animal Health and Performance Program at Auburn University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
The Canine Detection Research Institute also is part of the Auburn program, and has been the only place where the VWD dogs are trained. Research on the issue was started at Auburn in 2004 after a huge spike in suicide bombings overseas in Iraq. Amtrak started using the VWD dogs in 2008.
Amtrak security officers have been deploying more of the highly trained Labrador dogs around stations and on trains as the dogs come from the training program at Auburn. The dogs currently go through an 18-week training program to learn their skills, which are beneficial because they don't have to get so close to their subjects and can cover more territory.
"These are the Michael Jordans of the explosive detection world," Amtrak police inspector William Parker said of the vapor wake dogs in an interview with ABC News at Union Station.
Unlike screening technology and x-rays, the dogs can quickly learn new types of explosives that they may need to search for.
"It detects all type of explosives," Parker said. "If something new comes out, all we do is introduce the odor to the dog and after a couple of hours the dog will pick it up."
Amtrak has held the RAILSAFE exercises before, but this exercise was one of the first to take place nationwide. Despite the elevated threat environment in Europe over possible attacks there, officials said the event was planned far in advance to take place on the long Columbus Day weekend.
"This exercise has nothing to do with any impending threats or any incident that may have happened in Europe," Amtrak Deputy Chief Keven Gray said in Washington.
Questioned about the lack of vast security checks and baggage screening for trains, Amtrak said it had stepped up some bag checks in their work with TSA.
"Just because you don't see police officers does not mean that they are not there." Gray said. "Identification is checked and bags are checked."