LA surface inspector named TSA’s best

Monday, December 21, 2020
John Houck photo

For the last 10 years, John Houck has served TSA in a job not many people talk about.

Houck is a surface transportation security inspector, or TSI. TSA has over 200 TSIs to conduct surface transportation inspections, investigate alleged federal violations, participate in vulnerability assessments and make sure the nation’s surface transportation operators are complying with the rules.

TSA’s Surface Operations selected Houck as the top Surface TSI for fiscal 2020. Since 2010, Houck, based out of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), has served in that position and said it’s a team effort.

“There is no way I could do the job of protecting our nation’s vital surface transportation system alone,” said Houck. “The role starts with me and builds with the LAX surface team, our leadership, other surface teams, [TSA] Surface Operations, stakeholders, and so on. My role is to develop and maintain effective partnerships/relationships and work together with industry to secure my sector of responsibility from an evolving threat.”

As a surface TSI, Houck finds himself in many different roles and wearing multiple hats throughout the day.

Houck truck inspection photo
Los Angeles Surface TSI John Houck conducts a truck inspection. (Photo by Bob McGuire)

“In the morning, I might wear a rail compliance hat, then switch to my TWIC® enforcement hat, move over to wear my trainer hat while instructing Coast Guard and CBP on newly released regulations,” Houck explained. “Then, in the afternoon, I have on my partnership hat with stakeholders while discussing possible Baseline for Security Enhancement options.”

That’s not all!

“I administer surface security initiatives and regulations across the nation’s transportation system within my area of responsibility,” he added. “I also support and take operational direction from my chain of command to accomplish the surface work plan and other surface security initiatives.”

Houck said the key strategy to effective surface transportation in the U.S. is having solid partnerships.

“The initial 100 TSIs who started the surface program in 2005 did an amazing job establishing relationships with their stakeholders,” he said, “and basically paved the way for the rest of us. They had no regulations to rely on, unlike aviation and cargo, so they had no choice but to establish partnerships.”

Houck said developing partnerships allows surface transportation operators and government to add more eyes and ears to secure the different sectors such as trucking, seaports, passenger and freight rail.

TSI John Houck photo
Los Angeles Surface TSI John Houck in the field. (Photo courtesy of TSA LAX Surface Team)

“Locally, I partner with the U.S. Coast Guard on a weekly basis to provide a comprehensive strategy for TWIC® enforcement. In addition, I work with CBP, Maritime Transportation Security facility security officers as well as local and state law enforcement to add layers of security to the nation’s seaports. I truly believe you get more accomplished through establishing relationships with stakeholders than coming at them with a hammer.”

Since joining TSA, Houck has worked in two different modes in compliance and said surface is the best kept secret.

“I work out of one of the largest offices within the surface program and definitely one of the busiest,” he proclaimed. “The LAX office deals with every mode surface has to offer, and this allows me to be a more effective and efficient surface inspector. Finally, besides our team having a great sense of esprit de corps, we have the needed support from our supervisory TSI and regional security director to do our job which makes all the difference in the world.”