Walk-through metal detectors (WTMDs) are arguably the most commonplace physical security measure. Whether at a school, courthouse, concert, fair, sporting event or airport, you have probably been “beeped” for that keychain you forgot in your pocket.

In use for over 135 years, metal detectors are a classic security device that prevents individuals from introducing dangerous weapons into a facility – and a countermeasure security directors should never underestimate.

WTMDs create a safer more secure environment and communicate a clear message of deterrence. They also ensure that security personnel do not need to touch individuals to determine what they are carrying, which reduces some of the risks associated with claims of sexual harassment associated with physical searches.

The Colorful History of Metal Detectors Extends Back to the 1880s

Consider a few highlights drawn from the pedigree of this technological device:

  • In the 19th century, detectors weren’t designed or intended to identify keys or even guns so much as bullets – e.g., bullets lodged in former President James Garfield, in one famous instance. Unfortunately, the metal components of the bed on which Garfield lay confused the detector and the 20thS. president succumbed to his injuries, but the concept itself was a breakthrough.
  • In the mid-1920s, two engineers invented a WTMD to prevent theft at a large manufacturing plant in Germany. The device worked, ending the need for hands-on searching and becoming anti-theft staple in the process.
  • In the early 1940s, a Polish army engineer designed a hand-held device to detect landmines. The Allied Forces used these devices throughout World War II to prevent casualties.
  • The first appearance of WTMDs in airports occurred in 1972 as long-simmering risks of hijackings in the 1950s and 1960s ballooned in the 1970s. Its implementation was likely influenced by high-profile acts of terrorism in the air that included the rash of Dawson’s Field hijackings by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP).

 A Critical Role Today on the Frontlines of Global Security

WTMDs appear to be growing in demand. Starting this year, for example, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) is requiring them at all stadiums. This may be partially due to their portability — security personnel can move and assemble WTMDs with ease — and relatively low cost, with some units at around $5,000 per device. The continued expansion of their use shows that while the technology may not be new, WTMDs are still widely considered a primary element of a security plan as they can be easily configured for many situations and environments.

5 Tips on Getting the Highest Value from this Physical Security Workhorse

  1. Pay Attention to Placement: Ensure the queue for the metal detection area, whether it is hand-held or walk-through, is designed to adequately manage the expected crowd. A solid layout can reduce long lines that extend to or near vehicular traffic areas, minimize the exposure of individuals to inclement weather and reduce the chance that a person waiting in the queue will be able to contact another inside the venue to facilitate a weapon transfer.
  2. Ensure Proper Training and Staffing: The effectiveness of the device depends on how well the security personnel staffing the area are trained and supervised. The personnel must be attentive to ensure that all individuals seeking access to the facility pass through the screening area and don’t “slip” past in heavy crowds. They must understand the device and investigate to the extent possible any alerts it emits. An alert at the waist level should not just be dismissed when the individual states, “Oh I forgot,” and pulls keys from their pockets or claims steel-toed footwear for lower extremity alerts. The facility should have a procedure in place to address multiple alerts, such as how many times an individual can walk through before they are checked with a secondary device (hand-wand) or a physical pat-down, and when the individual must be turned away. Staff must be acutely aware of their roles, limitations and procedures for operation, and more importantly, what steps to take if a weapon is encountered.
  3. Establish Robust Access Control: It is vital to ensure adequate access control measures are in place. WTMDs offer little value if the perimeter of the facility does not prevent unauthorized entry. A malicious actor will climb a fence, wait for a propped open door or breach the perimeter to avoid detection, rendering the WTMDs useless.
  4. Avoid Complacency: The security protocols must counter over-reliance on the metal detection device and combat complacency. Try Googling how to “sneak a weapon through a metal detection screening checkpoint,” and you’ll find commercially available products and tips on suggested concealment options to circumvent the metal-detecting measures. There is no substitute for a keen eye and awareness. Effective metal detection extends far beyond setting a security officer on a stool listening for an audible alert or watching for a visual alert, or an officer haphazardly waving a wand and failing to extend it to all extremities for a thorough scan. This is not unlike the many sensors on today’s vehicles, where the owner has become reliant on technology and complains when the backup sensor does not alert them as the car approaches and strikes a barrier. Security personnel must “own” the process and remain in control of their actions. The practice of remaining aware and watching the crowd and the individuals is every bit as important as the technological security measure.
  5. Don’t Turn Your Back on Maintenance: Security protocols should require that personnel ensure the equipment is properly calibrated, maintained and appropriately adjusted for the desired detection limits. Over-reliance on the technology can create a plug-and-play mentality among security personnel and a dangerous level of false confidence because they believe the device will function dependably every time. The security protocol should also limit the number of personnel who are trained and authorized to perform adjustments.

Metal detection screening is a cornerstone of many security programs. If you’re wondering how to make the most efficient use of your facilities’ entry points – with WTMDs or other physical security devices – contact our experts for help.