The events of Sept. 11, 2001 changed airport security forever. Many of the policies put in place in the aftermath of those terrorist attacks persist today. Agents from the Transportation Security Administration and Federal Aviation Administration, in particular, are tasked with following those directives to ensure safety at airports.
However, a series of high-profile incidents—such as a November 2013 shooting of a TSA officer at a Los Angeles airport—raised concerns that airports lack sufficient manpower, training and resources to adequately prepare these personnel for that assignment.
Procedural changes are slow to implement
Current training practices cover important knowledge and skills. Airports conduct FAA disaster drills, for example, which allow emergency response teams to run through the procedures they would follow in the event of a plane crash. The live full-scale exercise is required only once every three years, with a table-top version conducted in a classroom every other year. Compounded by turnover in personnel, the rate of change for technological innovation and commuter behavior often outpaces training, creating gaps in protocols.
While budgets continue to thin, oversight and review agencies release reports that identify areas of improvement for airport security. Last May, Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) issued such a report on the fatal shooting of Gerardo Hernandez, the first line of duty death of a TSA agent. The after action investigation cited shortcomings in Red Phone technology, public notification and incident command basics. Even when these gaps are identified, airports may struggle to implement new procedures..
In a House subcommittee meeting last May, Marshall McClain, president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association, mentioned several earlier recommendations for procedural changes that were not put into action, such as adding more officers to airport checkpoints and improving collaborations with law enforcement. According to USA Today, the LAAPOA president believes some of the changes proposed in 2012 could have prevented the LAX shooting in 2013.
“I am concerned that airport management at LAX is not balancing policing and security with their ambitions to physically expand the airport and market it as a destination for world travelers,” McClain told the subcommittee on transportation security.
Airport emergency teams are making the most of their resources they do have to provide the highest level of security possible, but facilities are also expanding operations to cover a wider range of potential emergencies. For example, the Los Angeles/Ontario International Airport Public Safety Division works around the clock to provide continuous law enforcement and assistance to the public, employees and visitors to the airport. Established in 1971, the ONT maintains partnerships with the airport community and other public safety offices.
Recommendations try to improve transition between teams
Gina Marie Lindsey, LAWA’s executive director, points to recent investments of more than $93 million in a dozen major security projects as evidence that improvements are a priority. According to Airport World, these projects include enhanced closed-circuit television surveillance, explosive-detection tools, new credentialing, and miles of perimeter fencing with an intrusion detection system. Lindsey also reported that, since 2008, LAX’s security budget increased 16.5 percent and the number of sworn airport police officers rose 9.5 percent.
“The safety and security of the traveling public, employees and visitors at LAX is our highest priority,” Lindsey said.
Resources, both financial and human, are needed to support such changes, however. One of these LAX security projects contributed to the communication and coordination issues that resulted in Hernandez’ death. The Airport Response Coordination Center acts as the hub of operations for the airport, combining crisis response and management with daily support functions. Opened in 2011, this center is specifically responsible for managing the entire scene in the event of an emergency, relaying critical information, keeping in contact with agents in the field, securing various areas and calling in outside responders.
The LAWA after action report revealed gaps in ARCC procedures and staffing, which inhibited its role in coordinating emergency response to the LAX attack. In particular, the transition from ARCC to Department Operations Center was slowed due to inadequate staffing and inexperience. Personnel physically moved from their desks into DOC workstations, leaving some AARC roles uncovered during the incident. LAWA recommended codifying response to improve ARCC’s role during a high-pressure, time-compressed event, as well as becoming more proactive in distributing situational awareness information.
“Everyone has their role, but it is not very clearly laid out where TSA begins and ends,” McClain told USA Today. “It should not be a tug of war.”
Airport security relies on sufficient resources and ongoing training to ensure the safety of agents and passengers. Regular review and reflection on how best to incorporate daily operations into transition protocols will help ensure that situational awareness propagates across critical departments using up-to-date information. Clear lines of responsibility during transition will lead to improved alert and response mobilization during airport emergencies.
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