A spry German shepherd named Barry hops onto a Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority bus and walks the aisle, stopping at a seat near the back, sitting on his haunches and looking up at his handler.
Barry swiftly smells the simulated explosive his human partner cannot detect. So federal Transportation Security Administration inspector Wayne Hahn rewards the dog with a red rubber toy.
For months now Barry and two other bomb-sniffing canines with extensive training have learned their way around Charleston's airport, shipping docks and bus and train stations. As one of only six "multi-modal" TSA teams in the country, they also travel to transportation centers around the state.
The dogs and their handlers showed off their skills at a demonstration Thursday at the CARTA headquarters on Leeds Avenue. CARTA's transit administrator, Christine Wilkinson, said the canines' role means "being prepared for what we hope won't happen."
"We, from time to time, have had threats that we need to be responding to," Wilkinson said. "Their familiarity will make that better."
Two German shepherds and one Belgian shepherd paired with three local transportation officers during a 10-week training program at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, in late 2009. The program, officially known as the National Explosives Detection Canine Team, began a few years ago at large metropolitan airports in such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.
TSA local security director Debra Engel said Charleston joined those big cities, in part, because it includes the state's largest airport and a prominent national port. TSA certified the three local teams in May, and the agency will retest each team annually.
TSA carefully selected the three officers who not only work with the dogs but also care for them at home. One handler, Bobby Jones, previously served as a military agitator, taking bites as part of his job, and also as a kennel technician at a prison.
"Telling people they're not allowed to pet the dog -- that's the hardest part," Jones said.
Another handler, Kimberley Barnett, worked for the SPCA in Berkeley County before learning she was allergic to cats and had to quit. She applied for a TSA job when the federal government took over security at Charleston International Airport in 2002 and now partners with a German shepherd named Brit.
"Thank goodness we've only found the things we've hidden," Barnett said. "I could go my whole life without ever finding a real item and be happy about that."
As for Barry's handler, Hahn
lives in rural Hollywood with a menagerie of animals, the least exotic of which is his bomb-sniffing dog. Though he sold his zebra, Hahn's small farm still includes parrots, tortoises and a camel named Corona whose back stands more than 7 feet high.
Barry lives in the house with Hahn's poodle, though Hahn keeps his work partner away from his two larger dogs: an English Mastiff and a Rottweiler. And Barry sometimes chases the cats.
Explosive-detection aside, Hahn says, "He's still a dog."
Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594.
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