Every time a commercial airliner takes off at an American airport, the safety of its crew and passengers symbolizes the work of Paul Polski.
Polski spent 12 years heading an 80-person task force at a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) counter-terrorism lab in southern New Jersey that developed innovative products that detect concealed weapons before they can be brought onto commercial aircraft and others that lessen the damage to a plane caused by explosives. Polski’s task force was the world’s only lab dedicated solely to developing advanced counter-terror technologies.
Over 7,000 of these security devices have been installed in 443 American airports since September 11, 2001. Among them is the digital Threat Image Protection (TIP) system, which essentially inserts fake images of weapons in the view screen of luggage screeners. Since the incidence of suspicious objects either checked-in or carried on to planes is so low, TIP allows for constant on-the-job training that will keep baggage screeners on their toes.
Another of Polski’s lab’s innovations discreetly “sniffs out” traces of explosive material on travelers and their baggage. Polski’s team also used fast CAT scan-based x-ray technology to automatically inspect checked baggage. In addition to American deployments, thousands of these devices have been purchased and deployed by over 50 countries for airports around the world since the mid-1990s.
The FAA laboratory was created in November 1990, just two years after Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, destroyed by a bomb believed to have been placed on the aircraft in West Germany by Libyan terrorists, killing all 259 people on board. One innovation developed by Polski’s lab might have saved their lives: hardened luggage containers designed to absorb the impact of an explosion without disrupting a flight.
In addition to developing new technology, Polski is also responsible for collaborative projects with private industry to get the machinery built in mass quantities and deployed to airports and other transportation centers. A key element of Polski’s strategy was to maintain a strong industrial base for this security equipment in case there was an urgent need for accelerated production. The events of September 11 proved that strategy to be very sound.
Polski is a 1958 graduate of the United States Naval Academy and was a Navy pilot in Vietnam. He began his federal service at the FAA in 1990 and led the counter-terrorism lab from its infancy until August 2002. He is now chief of staff for the Assistant Administrator and Chief Technology Officer of the Transportation Security Administration in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
At the FAA, he was the architect who brought the right people together to accomplish a supremely important task. “He basically built this lab from the ground up, and developed a core of expertise that did not exist,” said Susan Hallowell, a former coworker and the lab’s technical director. “Before this lab, you could get a bomb into any airport. Now you can’t.”
With Polski’s help, what might sound simple could actually save countless lives in the event of the unthinkable.
This medalist was the recipient of the Homeland Security Medal. This medal was combined with the Justice and Law Enforcement category in 2013, and renamed the Safety, Security and International Affairs Medal in 2020.