San Antonio’s airport K9 bomb detectors among the best – San Antonio Express-News

Rocky’s nose twitched in the air as his head snapped around, pulling the rest of his body 180 degrees. Passengers towing suitcases at San Antonio International Airport watched as the German shepherd quickly circled a few more times, weaving around the cloth barriers that separated the ticket counters while pinpointing where the scent he just detected was coming from.

Officer Gabriel Mercado fell into step behind his four-legged partner as Rocky, now locked on the scent, made a beeline for a vending machine on the far wall and promptly sat next to it. The passive — but distinctive — action told Mercado that there was explosive material in the airport.

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As their colleagues observed the duo, Mercado pulled out a black toy and tossed it to Rocky with high-pitched praises for a job well done. Rocky had found a small silver box containing explosive material that another officer had stuck to the back of the vending machine.

Mercado and Rocky are one of the San Antonio police officer-K9 duos that work around the clock to keep travelers safe from potentially deadly situations — considered one of the most highly skilled K9 Explosive Detection Units in the country.

The Express-News received exclusive access to the San Antonio K9 Explosive Detection Unit and spoke with trainers about the situations they and their dogs face at the airport.

The K9 Explosive Detection Unit at the San Antonio airport has six handler-K9 teams, and San Antonio K9 EDU Sgt. Andres Lopez hopes it can get up to nine teams working at the airport. The dogs are a mix of Belgian Malinois, German shepards and one German shorthaired pointer that share a single mission: to detect explosives.

‘Can’t afford to miss something’

The dogs are responsible for more than sniffing luggage. The handlers get called to investigate suspicious bags, vehicles and packages. They screen large cargo, and they routinely conduct sweeps of the airport, terminals and other large facilities. The work they do helps deter terrorist activity that could have deadly consequences.

The San Antonio Police Airport K9 Unit trains in Terminal B at the San Antonio International Airport on Tuesday.

The San Antonio Police Airport K9 Unit trains in Terminal B at the San Antonio International Airport on Tuesday.

Jerry Lara, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer

“What’s crazy to me is that there are several (incidents that happen). I didn’t think there were that many,” Mercado said. “They aren’t televised or always shared.”

And their skills aren’t utilized solely inside the airport. San Antonio’s EDU team is often called to help at large venues and high-profile events that are prime targets for people seeking to gain attention by inflicting mass casualties. They work locally at places like the Alamodome, H-E-B stores and area high schools, and they are routinely assigned each year to help with Super Bowl security, as well as presidential details during election years.

“We can’t afford to miss something or let even one bad one through,” Lopez said. “That’s why training for us is so important.”

Several years ago, a man kept the San Antonio Police Department on its toes, calling in bomb threats to major local institutions like the University of Texas at San Antonio. When the man called a threat into the airport, the EDU team was prepared.

“We got a call that said there was a car bomb parked in the terminal in short-term parking,” Lopez said. “That is thousands upon thousands of cars a bomb could be in.”

Five K9 teams searched the parking lot, and Lopez’s then-K9 Cora came across a vehicle that peaked her interest. Lopez called in another team — without telling the second handler that Cora had alerted — to search the same area independently.

The second dog alerted on the same car that Cora found.

“Our training and experience led us to believe something was up with that car,” Lopez said.

A bomb squad responded and discovered that the trunk contained a water filtration system that had a filter with the equivalent of 30 pounds of black powder.

“Thankfully, it wasn’t a car bomb, but it was a good hit by the dogs because they did find something considered an explosive odor like they are trained to do,” Lopez said.

Darko, a 5-year-old Belgium Malinois, sits upon finding a planted explosive device during a drill with San Antonio Airport Police K9 Unit Officer Raymond Lopez at San Antonio International Airport on Tuesday. The unit’s dogs are trained to find explosives.

Darko, a 5-year-old Belgium Malinois, sits upon finding a planted explosive device during a drill with San Antonio Airport Police K9 Unit Officer Raymond Lopez at San Antonio International Airport on Tuesday. The unit’s dogs are trained to find explosives.

Jerry Lara, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer

Many of these dogs will never be exposed to explosive material outside their training, but it’s critical that they always be prepared for the day that their noses stand between people and an attack.

Elite by design

One reason why the San Antonio EDU is so skilled stems from local resources that many other departments don’t readily have access to. The SAPD’s EDU handlers have a close relationship with the local FBI bomb unit, which provides live, peroxide-based explosives for realistic training scenarios.

Meanwhile, perhaps the most significant advantage that the San Antonio department has is its proximity to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, giving the team easy access to one of the top canine training facilities in the world.

The military base is home to the Transportation Security Administration’s Explosives Detection Canine Handler Course — a 12-week program that teaches officers to be explosive detection dog handlers. The grueling course tests handlers’ limits, Lopez said, and not everyone leaves with a dog.

Officers who go through the EDU training at Lackland spend about two weeks in the classroom learning about things such as dogs’ odor responses, first aid and explosives identification — all while senior trainers observe each officers’ specific personality to determine who would pair best with each dog.

The rest of the course involves evaluating whether each handler clicks with a dog and whether the handler can pick up on the dog’s alert actions that indicate the animal smells explosive material.

For San Antonio’s K9 handlers, the training doesn’t stop after they graduate. Once handlers get to the SAT unit, they start working with Orlando Nunez, a Homeland Security agent and one of the top K9 trainers in the country.

Nunez helps assess each dog’s proficiencies and deficiencies to develop a plan to help it improve while the rest of the team continues to train the new handler on becoming a dog trainer for other handlers.

Many of the dogs assigned to the San Antonio EDU team over the years are what the industry calls “retread” dogs, meaning they were returned to the Lackland program for one reason or another. And most of them end up with the trainers at San Antonio who keep them until the dog retires.

San Antonio Airport Police K9 Unit Sgt. Andres Lopez trains Keyno, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, at San Antonio International Airport on Tuesday. The unit’s dogs are trained to find explosives.

San Antonio Airport Police K9 Unit Sgt. Andres Lopez trains Keyno, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, at San Antonio International Airport on Tuesday. The unit’s dogs are trained to find explosives.

Jerry Lara, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer

Police agencies and military bases from around the country converge on the Alamo City quarterly to attend the San Antonio EDU multiday, joint training to learn from Lopez and his team. Not only does it help fellow departments enhance their own K9s, but the training helps ensure that if something major happens, they are ready to augment the teams here.

“God forbid that something large-scale happens, we don’t want to be seeing these guys for the first time and not knowing their capabilities, their proficiency level,” Lopez said. “It may sound arrogant, but we want them to be somewhat on our level.”

National standards not enough

The San Antonio unit’s motto is “never be baseline.”

Lopez said it has its trainers to go above and beyond the baseline proficiency levels that the national standards require. So if nationally trainers have to search 20 vehicles in a parking lot to be able to recertify their dogs annually, Lopez and Nunez tell their trainers to search 100 vehicles or more.

“Complacency kills,” Nunez said.

The handlers train several days a week searching aircraft, vehicles, baggage, terminals, freight warehouses and open areas for at least 45 minutes. Each year, they must achieve at least 93 percent proficiency during their annual evaluations to be recertified.

The San Antonio unit and students with the Lackland Canine Training Center use the terminal for realistic scenarios to make sure the dogs can handle real-world threats. Lopez said they don’t train by playing hide-and-seek with the explosives but rather by putting their dogs in the airport to expose them to different smells, noises and people.

“You have to be ready for anything because the unthinkable happens,” Nunez said. “Whatever you could possibly think of happening, it has happened.”

taylor.pettaway@express-news.net

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