Airport Security: Active Shooter, Insider Threat, Terrorism and Protests
Airport security directors are always looking to beef up technology, improve employee training and work better with the TSA.
Airport security personnel spend most of their time preparing for active shooter incidents, insider threats and, in concert with the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA), potential terrorist attacks. But on January 28, many of our nation’s largest airports had to handle an entirely different, unaccustomed scenario: mass protests over immigration policy.
“That was an interesting day,” says Mark Hatfield, director of public safety and security at Miami International Airport, who took that position in 2015 after retiring as Deputy Administrator of the TSA. “Of course, it had to be one of the most unusually cold and rainy days in Florida in years – 52 degrees with a light drizzle.”
Like other airport security directors, Hatfield says he faced the balance between maintaining public safety, allowing passengers to be picked up or dropped off without interference, and giving the protesters the right to voice their opinions. The protest groups were too spontaneously organized to have applied for the proper permits, he says, but “we made a decision to designate a protest area, to give them an opportunity to make their voices heard. It was a compliant crowd. It was a loud crowd.”
For a few brief moments, the crowd spilled onto airport roadways and stopped traffic, but airport police regained control and moved the group of 200 to 300 people to a nearby sidewalk, Hatfield says. “In managing all of that and keeping the airport safe for everyone else, there’s a lot of delicate balancing work,” he says.
And security personnel had to take a “three-dimensional” view and ensure that bad actors did not use the protests as a cover to slip in unnoticed. “A moment like that presents so many opportunities for a darker, agitating force,” he says. “You need to have a full view of the scene, not just the immediate crowd.”
While labor protests are fairly routine, Los Angeles International Airport has seldom seen a scene like the 5,000 or so people who appeared to voice their views about President Trump’s executive order, says David Maggard, police chief at LAX, who previously worked on the municipal level in Irvine, California.
“We had the multifaceted responsibility of making sure that there was a safe way for people to express their views, in support of the Constitution, while at the same time protecting the airport from criminal activity, and finally meeting our responsibility to care for the traveling public’s ability to access terminals,” he says. “It was a first for us. It was quite a challenge.” LAX will add such exercises to training scenarios going into the future, he adds.
Airport security personnel always have trained and prepared to combat active shooter scenarios, although the need was once again underscored on January 6 with the tragedy in the baggage claim area of Fort Lauderdale International Airport.
“Our hearts definitely go out to our brothers and sisters up the road in Fort Lauderdale. That was very close to home,” Hatfield says. But it’s also nothing new. “We were doing active shooter drills when I was federal security director here five, six, seven years ago,” he says. “That’s something airports face; it’s something we’ve taught, trained and raised awareness on.”
An attack like the Fort Lauderdale incident typically happens in a matter of seconds, which means that security personnel “are more faced with recovery than an actual response,” Hatfield says. “We have a lot of layers of responsive capability in terms of deterring an attack like that,” including “a very robust K-9 capability.”
But the Miami airport tries to strike a balance in its security posture, he says. “We have to avoid having an overly militarized front of the airport,” Hatfield says. But at the same time, “If an individual or group is planning an attack, we want to make sure this is a very undesirable target for them, that we have a very present security force that is highly visible, and yet maintains a good degree of unpredictability, with hard to detect patterns.”
Miami airport security officials are exploring the emerging technologies around gunfire detection and social media monitoring, although Hatfield isn’t certain how well gunfire detection would work in an airport, and he notes that the social media software has become bound up in legal challenges. “A lot of folks are out there with products,” he says. “You’ve really got to spend your money wisely.”
LAX is all too familiar with active shooter after an incident there on November 1, 2013, Maggard says. “We had courageous officers who responded well that day, and we certainly have learned a lot and focused our training in the last three and a half years,” he says. “What we have done immediately in response to the shooting in Fort Lauderdale was to focus our force protection efforts where people are gathering, like baggage claim and ticketing areas.”
The LAX police have a full-time emergency services unit armed with rifles and a tactical team that provides protection in those areas along with patrol officers on foot, bicycles, motorcycles and cars, Maggard says. The security force also makes use of the Airport Regional Coordination Center, where personnel monitor 3,000-plus security cameras 24/7.
“If somebody sees something suspicious, they can dispatch officers immediately,” he says. “The best-case scenario is to be able to intervene quickly and catch someone who might be planning something before it gets launched. … What people are talking about right now in aviation security is protecting the public areas. That’s what we are most actively talking about, post-Fort Lauderdale.”
The airport continuously evaluates technology like perimeter detection systems and builds connections regionally to share aviation-related intelligence, Maggard says. “The technology is crucially important,” he says. “And we’re making sure we’re investing in our people. It’s about making sure we match the technology with the talent – those two complement each other.”
The Fort Lauderdale incident led Ralf Ruckelshausen, director of safety and security services at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), to ask himself whether he had logistics, operations, planning and engagement fully thought out and implemented. “Do I have the table set here in terms of education, training and exercises?” he asked himself.
SFO has a 9-1-1 communications dispatch center that sends out police or fire personnel and is aligned with the TSA’s own center, as well as a closed-circuit television network that’s monitored 24/7 at the security operations center, Ruckelshausen says. Coupled with those efforts, police and K-9 patrols are out and visible.
Ruckelshausen meets weekly with security personnel from a variety of local and federal agencies including police, fire, the FBI and the TSA to review the previous week and look ahead to the coming week, and he also regularly with a security council of high-level department heads at the airport.
Last year, SFO implemented Computer Based Training that has an Active Shooter module that every badge holder completes. “I’ve been looking at computer-based training for the folks who get ID badges, having them go through an active-shooter module,” he says. “We’ve been doing active shooter tabletop exercises that end up looking at dealing with such an incident.”
SFO also has been exploring gunshot-detection technology, as well as analytics that enable security to detect people walking in areas where pedestrians are not supposed to be, especially around vehicle checkpoints, Ruckelshausen says. And the airport has completed an RFP and will be testing a radar system that detects moving objects in adjacent San Francisco Bay to provide added security from the waterway. “It’s another proactive measure where we can identify [a potential threat] prior to it getting close,” he says.
At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, security personnel are working alongside the TSA to assess and respond to active shooter incidents, says Richard Duncan, assistant general manager of public safety and security.
“Most of our public areas are similar to a mall or other public facilities – individuals are allowed to go into those areas without being screened first,” he says. “Security personnel have to be prepared to deal with any type of emergency that might take place.”
Carl Braley, assistant airport director at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, figures the Fort Lauderdale incident took a lot of people by surprise. “All airports are scrambling: what can we do to prevent that?” he says. “How can we reduce the impact of that type of threat? Law enforcement officers are [being deployed] in baggage claim areas, or anywhere that a group of people could gather. Training is another big aspect of security planning.”
The airport’s security manager provides quarterly trainings for everyone from airline personnel, to concessionaires, to janitorial service companies, on dealing with active shooter, Braley says. The airport has recently instituted a program called Code Blue, in which any employee can call in a potential security threat and dispatchers alert all personnel to be on their guard. “We’re just telling them we have a potential worry, and we’re going to hold right there for a second and see if it’s something we have to react to,” he says.
Manchester-Boston, which straddles Manchester and Londonderry, New Hampshire, has been test-driving walk-through screening equipment that would detect firearms or explosives that Braley believes will be installed in doorways or hallways throughout the airport. “We set it up on our main thoroughfare and asked for volunteers to walk through it so the manufacturer could test the system and see what it looks like,” he says.
Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport in Moselle, Mississippi, is focused on active shooter above all else, says Tom Heanue, executive director of the airport. Despite being a small, regional airport, Hattiesburg-Laurel employs fencing and security patrols to complement the TSA.
They go through drills, and “we’ve got those down to where they’re manageable,” he says. “The main target is somebody walking off the street with a mental issue and a gun. … I don’t believe, in our area, we have bubbled up yet as the place to be. We’re not that active but, and it’s a big 'but,' you don’t know. It only takes one person.”
Jackson County Airport in Medford, Oregon, is another small regional field, but deputy director of security Brian Gebhard figures any public gathering place is a potential target. “I don’t know that there are a lot of ways we can protect against that on the public side of the airport,” he says. “We’re a target-rich environment for that type of stuff. We have a lot of people gathering at certain times of the day.”
Another key piece of creating a safe environment at airports is proper screening of employees and contractors to reduce the chance of an insider threat, whether active shooter or terrorism. With 35,000 badged personnel, Miami put a full screening program in place in the late 1990s during the “crime-fighting era” and has adapted it to include antiterrorism efforts since 9/11. “It is a commitment we’ve made,” Hatfield says. “It serves as a valid deterrent and gives us the capability to stop threat items before they’re entered into the sterile side of the airport.”
The TSA does recurrent vetting of badge holders for terrorist activity and places them on a watch list when appropriate, but until recently only checked criminal history records at the outset; that recently changed and now randomly runs a couple hundred or so through the cycle every month, he says. And the FBI has recently partnered with TSA to develop a soon-to-be-rolled-out system that will enable airport operators to regularly re-vet.
“That’s important because when it comes to bad actors in an airport, you’re fighting crime on one side and hoping to deter and detect potential terrorists on the other,” Hatfield says. “Terrorists learned that channels that worked for criminal activity can be exploited their purposes – there’s an overlap, a nexus. Recurrent screening and vetting is important.”
The Miami airport is currently upgrading its badging and access control system. “We are going to be getting a much-needed refresh on the technology side,” he says. “Typically, operations are run with much older equipment. Sometimes we get a hand-me-down from the TSA, or buy used equipment. It’s an expensive proposition and always constrained by budget.”
LAX has 55,000 badge holders, and the airport has specialized teams that work in the sterile areas to do additional vetting of employees or contractors, Maggard says. “We have created many, many more opportunities for us to do evaluations of people who have access to sterile areas of the airport,” he says.
Like Miami, LAX also tries to encourage all employees and contractors to take ownership of the airport’s safety and security, Maggard says. “Everyone who works in an airport should feel that responsibility, so we can use them as a force multiplier and be our eyes and ears,” he says. “We want to make sure we are doing everything we can to refine our approach to protecting the airport, making sure we are providing our people the very best in training, exploring the best in technology, and making sure we’re learning from one another.”
San Francisco has built screening areas that badged employees must funnel through, with badges subjected to security sensors and cameras to monitor who’s coming and going, Ruckelshausen says. “The TSA does insider threat assessments, screening that takes place post-access doors,” he says. “Those folks go through an inspection.”
Atlanta has more than 63,000 employees, more than 40,000 of whom have access to restricted areas, Duncan says. The airport attempts to address the insider threat by thoroughly vetting employees and putting into place educational programs aimed at see something, say something, he says.
In addition, the airport has an “extensive surveillance system” with a security camera system that goes back to a command and control center, Duncan says. The badging system “allows us to do real-time cancellation of someone’s access if for some reason they no longer need to have access to a door or area,” he says. “We use smart-card technology, and they are displayed on a lanyard to be placed on their body. We use a multilayered approach, with a visual component where they show a card with their picture, and then the smart-card technology.”
Employees and parcels entering the sterile area at Manchester-Boston go through a worker screening in a hallway as part of a security procedure. This has been in place for a little over a year, Braley says. “It’s had a lot of success, meaning that people have bought into it and it’s been embraced,” he says, adding, “We haven’t detected anything, but it, would be more difficult now to introduce something from the inside.”
The airport reduced the number of fence gates and doors that access the sterile area, Braley says, and they have limited specific individual’s access to certain times of the day, only during their hours of employment. Among the concerns are personnel working outside who naturally will have backpacks and other gear, plus large jackets during cold weather. “We want to look at that,” he says. “We want to make sure what’s happening over in the sterile area is appropriate.”
Working With the TSA, Local Police
Among the responsibilities facing airport security personnel are working with the TSA to combat terrorist threats. Hatfield notes that attacks like the truck incident in Nice, France, have broadened the soft-target focus well beyond airports but that 2016 “was a bad year for soft targets around the world” and that episodes like the Istanbul, Turkey, explosion last June 28 are a reminder that airports remain on terrorists’ radar.
“Just going through the front door and detonating explosives – that’s a very troubling dynamic, and it’s one that has caused us to continue to evaluate the way we deploy our resources and consider what hardening we need,” he says. “I would love to run all vehicles through a light-touch checkpoint, with a visual inspection of drivers, but I don’t think that’s in this year’s budget.”
Miami has begun doing random vehicle inspections to reduce the possibility of a “front-door attack, whether it’s a radicalized lone wolf from their basement or a small group of supported and highly planned individuals,” Hatfield says. “We’ve got to be able to present a front door that is both welcoming and fortified.”
Hatfield believes the TSA sees the value in partnering with airport security to combat such threats. “For the most part, the notion that has gone through the TSA ranks is not, ‘I’m the sheriff in town,” it’s the need to find a way to partner,” he says. “They can’t do the job by themselves. It’s got to become a culture of cooperation and a joint mission. I think that sentiment can be found in every corner of the country now.”
All levels of law enforcement have a “piece of the pie” in ensuring that badges are appropriately screened, doors are locked and gates are closed, and no one is somewhere they shouldn’t be, Braley says. “We had an individual during the past year who tried to jump our perimeter fence and was stopped by an employee driving home who had the heightened awareness to look down the fence line, challenged the individual, and the next thing you know there was an altercation,” he says. “At the end of the day, it stopped a breach.”
Hartsfield-Jackson worked with local law enforcement to position a special response team onsite, which are armed with long guns and trained in controlling hostile situations in a public area, Duncan says. “We were concerned about the time it would take for a SWAT team to come from downtown,” he says. “We wanted to have the ability to handle emergencies from the airport.”
Security personnel in Atlanta remain in a “hyper-vigilant posture” while constantly modifying their training and self-assessment to provide a safe environment for passengers and other guests, Duncan says. It’s all aimed at “ensuring that the airport can continue to function as an airport,” he says. “This past year, 104 million passengers went through, and we want to make sure they feel safe and secure, but we don’t want to get in the way of passengers and disrupt their movement. We want to allow a free flow.”