Cool Jobs: Air marshals opt for down-to-earth training for in-the-air threats

Monday - 10/22/2012, 4:07am EDT

After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Dallas police officer Kimberley F. Thompson wanted to do more to protect America and its citizens.

"I had thought about going into federal law enforcement, however, I hadn't decided what agency I wanted to go into," Thompson said.

While attending a Texas Women in Law Enforcement Association conference a short time after the attacks, Thompson met a female member of the Federal Air Marshal Service.

"My patriotism took over and I knew that I wanted to do something to prevent another 9-11 from happening, so, she answered my questions and I actually applied right there that day," Thompson said.

After flying missions from one of the service's field offices, Thompson eventually was certified as a firearms instructor and physical fitness instructor. She was promoted into a supervisory position at the training center, where she developed curriculum for new hires. Her experience crafting messages for recruits led to her current position as the supervisor for the OLE/FAMS Public Affairs in the Office of the Director.

Training for any eventuality

"Federal air marshals have to be self motivated," Thompson said. "There's not a lot of direct supervision. We're a very mobile and flexible workforce. We travel both domestically and internationally. So, when we're looking for someone to hire and employ as a federal air marshal, we definitely need someone who is self motivated and willing to go out there and be challenged every day."

Air marshal training takes about 16-1/2 weeks. New recruits are sent to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M., where they receive about eight weeks of law enforcement instruction. This includes learning basic police techniques, like how to write an arrest report, the general authorities as a federal law enforcement officer and how to place handcuffs on a suspect. They also receive training in general defensive techniques.

(Go behind the scenes with air marshals in training. Article continues below video.)

Recruits are then sent to the Federal Air Marshal Service Training Center in Atlantic City, N.J., where they undergo an additional eight weeks of training to prepare them to be strategically deployed on an aircraft.

"I think one of the neatest things about the Federal Air Marshal Service, and one of the things that we take a lot of pride in, is the fact that we have the highest qualification standard out of any federal law enforcement agency when it comes to our firearms skills," Thompson said. "Our minimum qualification for our workforce is 85 percent. Not only do we require that while you're in training, but every quarter ... we require our federal air marshals to requalify with their service weapon."

For their quarterly fitness tests, air marshals must do a set number of pullups, pushups and situps in a minute and complete a 1-1/2 mile run.

"It's definitely a physically demanding job if you think about how we go from zero to 500 miles an hour in a split second, reacting to a situation on board an aircraft, or pretty much in any transportation domain," Thompson said. "We require our federal air marshals to be physically fit and we set up our program to where we help you attain the level of fitness you desire."

At its Washington-area facility, officers train in a life-size mock-up of a commercial aircraft (see video above). The simulator is equipped with chaotic lights, smoke machines and audio components that help mimic real-life situations an air marshal might face on the job.

"We can simulate not just the real environment, but stressful environments and stressful situations for our federal air marshals so that they can accurately train on how to react to any given situation and make those important decisions they need to make on a regular basis," Thompson said.

The Federal Air Marshal Service is part of the Transportation Security Administration's Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) team, where marshals work with state and local law enforcement officers to present a visible deterrent to any acts of terrorism that might be targeting the transportation domain.

The service has its own investigative components to assess information about possible threats.

"We have an information coordination system where some of our ground-based federal air marshals will actually go through information that comes in from our organization or from other federal law enforcement agencies," Thompson said. "That's the beautiful thing about what happened with the federal government after 9/11 and the existence and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, is that it brought all of these federal agencies together where we started sharing information."