Three new state-of-the-art passenger screening devices are in place at the Portland Jetport, giving government screeners the ability to detect metal as well as non-metal threats like plastic explosives.

The devices, installed by the Transportation Security Administration, look like tall tubes which passengers step into and raises their arms. The scan with electromagnetic waves takes only a couple seconds and results in an image on a screen.

The screen either flashes green with the letters “OK” if nothing sets off the scanner, or it shows a generic image of a person with the location of a possible threat denoted by a yellow spot.

At a demonstration for the media this morning, TSA worker Gordon Field walked through with his belt on and his cell phone in his pocket. The image, which looks identical for every passenger, showed what TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis called “anomolies” by showing yellow discs over where his cell phone and belt buckle were.

“This is really the world’s best technology to scan passengers quickly and safely for a metal or non-metalic object,” Davis said.

The equipment uses what Davis described as harmless electromagnetic waves which are capable of detecting a tissue in someone’s pocket. For that reason, passengers will have to empty their pockets or be subjected to a pat down of the highlighted area.

The devices cost between $150,000 and $170,000. Early versions showed an accurate image of the passenger’s body shape, which led to privacy concerns. The new software displays an avatar of a human outline, an image that is deleted once the passenger passes the checkpoint, Davis said.

Passengers who prefer not to be screened by the new technology can still use the previous method of walking through a metal detector and getting a full pat-down if it goes off.

Davis said that in other airports – the “advanced imaging technology” is already in place in about 100 of the nation’s 450 airports – more than 98 percent of passengers choose the new system.

The devices began being used last week as TSA’s Portland staff does on-the-job training. 

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