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TSA Tests Explosive Vest-Detection Units At Penn Station

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The Transportation Security Administration began testing technology Tuesday designed to detect explosive suicide vests at Penn Station.

Explosives Detector Penn Station
Explosive detecting devices are tested at Penn Station on Feb. 27, 2018 (credit: CBS2)

The TSA is testing two types of units in partnership with Amtrak. One resembles a white camera on a tall tripod, while the other is mounted inside a trunk.

Explosives Detector Penn Station
One of two types of bomb-detection units being tested by the TSA is seen at Penn Station on Feb. 27, 2018 (credit: CBS2)

The machines screen people at a distance without slowing them down. Unlike airport screening systems, the equipment projects scanning waves at people rather than having them walk through a scanner.

The machines use millimeter wave technology -- not radiation -- to scan for metallic and non-metallic objects on a person's body. If a potential threat is detected, they will trigger an alarm on an operator's laptop.

Explosives Detector Penn Station
One of two types of bomb-detection units being tested by the TSA is seen at Penn Station on Feb. 27, 2018 (credit: CBS2)

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer has been pushing for the last few months to get the explosives detectors installed in New York transit hubs.

"When I made the push to bring this technology to New York City it was because we need to put it on the fast-track and we need to perfect it, because if it works, this is where we want it," Schumer said Monday in a news release.

Back in December, authorities said attempted suicide bombing suspect Akayed Ullah tried to blow himself up near the Port Authority station, allegedly using a crudely made pipe bomb attached to his body.

"This technology would have been effective and would have identified the suicide bomber who was at the Port Authority,"  the TSA's Lisa Farbstein told CBS2's Hazel Sanchez. "This specific technology will help us detect any artfully concealed items under clothing that could possibly be an IED, an improvised explosive device, such a suicide vest."

The TSA has been working on the experimental devices, known as standoff explosive detection units, since 2004 with transit agencies. The technology has also been used to secure large events like the 2014 Super Bowl and was tested by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority in December. It hasn't been deployed permanently at any transit hub because it's still under development.

Amtrak will test the devices at Penn Station for a week.

"We're going to do everything that we can to look at it, to analyze it and make sure it's the best thing for us and our customers, as well," Amtrak spokesperson Jason Abrams said.

If Amtrak decides to purchase the technology, the scanners would be operated by Amtrak employees, not the TSA.

"It was a little nerve-wracking not knowing what was going on," traveler Dan Costello told Sanchez.

"I think it would be beneficial and it would be able to save a lot of lives," another traveler added.

Testing will evaluate the effectiveness at detecting bombs and the frequency of false alarms.

(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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