Michael Irwin is the Federal Security Director for the State of Oregon. He's based at Portland International Airport, but his agency's remit covers all Oregon airports as well as rail, highways and pipelines. The Portland airport employs more than 10,000 people. The TSA has 700 staff in Oregon, 450
of whom work at PDX.
BT: What does Federal Security do?
MI: When people think of TSA [Transportation Security Administration] they just think of the experience at the airport. We have close working relationships with Amtrak and TriMet. We've got people in baggage, I've got explosive canines, immigration officers, behavioral detection officers, we've got surface officers, and we're the regulating agency for the airlines, airports and mass transit. When I talk to people they go 'We had no idea.' You need to go out and say 'This is what you give us $7.5 billion a year to do.' The more we tell our story the more people treat our officers differently. The first thing I did here was put up American flags so people realize it's a federal mission, we take pride in that. I would love people to stay in the TSA, but what I really want is if they leave, they are better citizens, they have a better work ethic, they've read the constitution, they've taken an oath of office, we're just trying to create better people. Not the perfect person, but better than when you came.
BT: How does Sept. 11, 2001 loom?
MI: I try to relate a lot of the stories about 9/11 to the officers, because we're at a point where a lot of the officers can't remember it, especially if they are 18 or 19. A defining event for my parents was the assassination of JFK, for me I was fourth grade. I remember it, but I remember the impact on my parents. We're at a point where the young officers don't remember it like a history lesson but they do remember the impact on their parents. Going back and talking to them about our sense of mission and what we do is really important. We have them read the constitution so it's not just a job patting people down. And then we talk about the economic impact of 9/11, and what would happen to the economy if we had an airplane go down.
BT: Is PDX a different flying experience?
MI: We want people to enjoy coming to the airport. If it takes 45 minutes to go through the checkpoint to fly to Seattle, and the same coming back, why would you fly? You'll say 'I'll just drive.' We just want people to know it's less hassle to go though the airport.
We're trying to take the tension out. Nobody likes standing in line, but if you talk to them it sets the mood. They end up treating our officers better.
One thing I absolutely can't stand is the bureaucratic language of our signs, that the agency puts out — lots of language. (The signs warning people what they can and can't bring through security.) Nobody's going to read all that. So one of our ladies who just got her masters degree went home and made these: water bottles, laptops, something simple and colorful.
BT: What about cuts to Federal budgets?
MI: A lot of what we're going to see going forward in an era of cuts to the federal budget, which are coming, is people are going to have to be a lot more innovative in bureaucracies. So, we have the American flag, our officers are low and exposed as opposed to at a podium which is a symbol of power. You make it a workspace and it's non-threatening. Everybody here at the Port is on the same wavelength with how you treat people.
This doesn't apply as much in mass transit, you don't have the same interaction. Unless, all of a sudden, we have some sort of terrorist activity on trains. But at airports that's what we rolled out against first. Nobody likes to stand in line, we try to make it as pleasant as we can. I tell my folks, the one thing people will remember about going through the airport is their interaction with you. They probably won't remember the interaction they had at Starbucks or anything else. But because you're in uniform and you might end up touching them or talking to them, or looking in their bag, you got to make sure that experience is a positive. And that's as simple as kidding around with them, a smile, saying have a great flight. It's not all that difficult.
BT: What did you make of the United passenger being dragged from an overbooked plane?
MI: What was the individual thinking who pulled the passenger out? United's a great airline but every interaction you have with someone sets the stage for later on.
BT: What's your technique for winning people over?
MI: I was in Washington on 9/11 and saw the huge economic impact of that. It was about making people feel safe about flying, and part of that is the way you treat them. We're in the security and customer service business, whether you're a police officer, customs or border patrol. When they had the protests out here I had the opportunity to walk around and talk to people, and people were frustrated. If you work for the Federal Government you have an obligation to talk to people about what you do, why you do it and how you can do it better. If more people had that view there'd be less animosity.
BT: If you need something done, whom do you talk to?
MI: Most of my business is done here at the Port, or if it was to do with mass transit I'd go down to Harry Saporta, the head of safety and security at TriMet. But let's say there was some sort of increased threat, like a truck bomb, and we don't know when it might happen. Right from the beginning I'd be in involved with the Port of Portland and their police department, and other agencies and the FBI who are just across the way there. The other DHS partners — and DHS is 250,000 people — Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, FEMA, Coast Guard...we have a whole community of Federal executives who meet out here on a regular basis. And if we needed to we'd talk to the governor too. Certainly the mayor (Wheeler) would be involved too. Not so much on the business community side. Media would be involved as well, usually that would be run out of our headquarters...but the more the city knows the better you'd be able to cope.
BT: Bureaucracy or service provider?
MI: The way I look at TSA is, we're a service provider. We might be a federal agency, but we work for the Port. What's got TSA and the ports they've worked at on a bad footing is maybe the attitude, we're the federal government, we do what we have to do, we don't really need your help. I started in San Francisco, spent some time in L.A. and Miami, and the first person I go talk to is the airport directors, and I go 'I'm here as a service provider.' They are also regulated by us on all things security, kind of like the (Federal Aviation Administration) used to do. The Port is very innovative, they come up with ideas on their own, because they don't have to worry about us playing the gotcha game, we talk to them all the time. It's just a different way of doing business. As a federal agency in a city with not necessarily a huge federal presence, you have to go out and talk to people about the value you bring.
BT: How do you recruit?
MI: We're forward-leaning, we have a team go to universities, we have a lot of people from Portland State who work for us, we talk in high schools — those are going to be the recruits of the future. We also talk to civic groups like the Rotary Club, sometimes I'll give a presentation about 9/11 or just talk about our mission. Everybody has their worst TSA story, and normally they're at some other airport. Which I'm glad about! We have over 20 married couples who work for us, we have brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, because they recommend it, we like this place. So how we get treated here makes a difference, they're representing Oregon as much as the federal government. We win lots of awards, for instance, the best canine team in the country is here. And Portland is a bit wacky, people like that.
BT: How will the expansion
MI: Well now you can see people coming in on the screens, that's an innovation. But any time you close doors, open doors, construction worker have new access, you go through a change condition, you annotate it, we make notes on it, have meetings, this door's going to be open for six weeks...so everything they know we know.
BT: Is change inevitable?
MI: The equipment is being improved every year. Even the stuff we have now, the algorithms are being upgraded so If they see lower concentrations of threat, they can. But the canines are the best, they're tremendous. The challenge we face is more people are going to fly, but our agency is not going to get any bigger, so we have to figure out how to screen more people with less bodies. And you don't want people to wait 45 minutes, because that affects the economy. It's going to come down to who doesn't need to be screened at all, or minimally. If you have top secret screening, do you really need to go through screening every time? It's the same with pre-check, which goes twice as fast as regular screening. You don't have to take your shoes off or show your laptop, because you've given us more background.
BT: What about other non-airport security?
MI: This fall we're doing a training downtown at the soccer stadium (Providence Park) we're working with TriMet, for what if there was something like the Boston bombing. We're doing a lot of joint activities with the Rose Parade, with our biker teams, federal marshals who ride bikes and talk to people around transit.
BT: What type of person do you work
MI: Attitude is the very first thing. I talk to colleges, there are so many talented people but it's all about being positive and having a good work ethic. You want reliability, and the technical skills we can teach you. We send them for two week to FLETC in Glynco, Georgia, then they come back here for six weeks on the job training.
Personally I have to have people I can trust. If Bill (Wyatt, POP Director) says something or Vince (Granato, PDX COO) says something, you know you can trust them, you don't have to worry about what their ulterior motives are. And conversely I have to be the same way, they have to know I will follow through.
BT: Is there a meeting style you prefer?
MI: Millennials, they're always doing this (looking down at screens), and we have a lot of millennials working for us. It goes back to looking people in the eye. Just recently I told people they can't bring cell phone to the meetings. We probably have too many meetings, we're guilty of that. We have a staff meeting every Monday with no particular agenda. I hate going to meetings where a decision is not made. As I get older I have less tolerance. I go 'What's the purpose of this?' Bureaucracies are meant to be risk averse. As you get more senior you become more vocal, and less risk averse.