This article previously published on SOFREP 08.18.2016
As our own Brandon Webb deplaned Sunday night and set foot on American soil following a presumably enjoyable Euro-trip, all hell broke loose. Word spread that there was an active shooter, and for all passengers to take cover. According to multiple reports, including Webb’s own account, and a NY Post article that had a couple videos up, the inside of JFK airport in New York was complete chaos. An excellent and detailed first-hand account has also sprung up on NYmag.com. And there’s a short, clean article detailing responsibilities, chronological events, and potential outcomes from the JFK incident over at the NY Daily News.
Now, whatever the cause for the pandemonium was (speculations have ranged from the firing of blanks to boisterous crowds banging on tables, telekinetically encouraging Usain Bolt to run faster) one thing is certain: passengers didn’t feel safe. Adding to the uneasiness, apparently some security guards were seen and heard acting just a bit less than calm, cool, and collected.
…at least half a dozen officers ran into the area, guns drawn, yelling ‘Shots fired, active shooter, everyone run! Run for your lives!‘- Webb’s SOFREP.com article
Webb goes on to praise the bravery of the officers, which was never in question, but notes that communication with passengers left a lot to be desired. He notes a few things that could’ve been disseminated better, and tactics that could have been utilized. Thankfully, the whole situation turned out to be a false alarm. However, with hindsight being what it is, it’s worth our time to Monday morning quarterback this thing and present some possible solutions. You know, fill out the ‘ol AAR (after-action report)…
I asked Webb a few questions I had after reading his account and came up with a few key talking points and their potential problems and solutions for airport security. As always, if you have any info on what works in your AO, pass it along in the comments section. This isn’t meant to be a set of security commandments we chisel in stone, but rather noticeable errors picked up from Webb’s account of the actions taken by the airport that night dissected and analyzed.
Problem: Often, the biggest problems develop from the most preventable sources. In this case, a lack of clear communication caused extra panic and stress. Webb stated that the passengers were left out of the loop, forcing them to make decisions and inferences on their own. In the rare instance there was communication, it was hurried, excited, and contradictory to what security officials would ultimately like to see unfold. The NY Mag article noticed a complete lack of radio communication (or even radios) between airport officials.
Solution: Take the time to communicate effectively with the masses of people who are under your charge. It only takes a second for someone to gain access to the PA system and make a clear and concise message. Something like “we have an active shooter report in progress, please move out of the walkways and gather at the nearest seating area until a security official has arrived,” or whatever their policy is. That could have gone a long way in helping people gather a little situational awareness and prevent a mass of scared passengers from ambushing the nearest airport official who is also frantically trying to gather information. It also would clear the walkways which would aid the mobility/effectiveness of police officers while getting the public out of what could turn out to be the world’s largest “fatal funnel.” Additionally, leaders like Webb can emerge from chaotic individual groups with just a little bit of information and help direct crowds to get behind cover, etc., until the police arrive to take over.
This basic element is often the most preventable problem in chaotic situations. Any other airport in the country is going to face this issue as well. Hopefully this tragedy-free trial and error run will result in the immediate dissemination of clear and concise info that will advise passengers on the first step to take. This makes the actions of massive amounts of travelers more predictable to security officials. And that’s a good thing.
In a separate point about communication, a quick check of the TSA and NY Port Authority websites provides no indication there was ever an incident at JFK. Wouldn’t official websites be a great way to at least let the public know that you’re working on figuring out what happened that night?
Safe places/ collection points
Problem: There was no clear area marked for passengers to gather in case of an emergency. There is no briefing travelers get before arriving at an airport.
Solution: Provide a short blurb at the bottom of your ticket confirmation email that links you to the basic outline of the emergency plans of your airport. If your airport’s plan for an active shooter is to quickly get to the ground transportation area, or shelter-in-place in shops or restaurants with retractable doors, then put that initial bit of info out there. While no one wants to induce any unnecessary panic, it is beneficial to arm the public with a consistent and predictable plan of action. Notice how consistency and predictability keep coming up? That’s because it takes a huge load off the shoulders of law enforcement who are beginning a systematic and dangerous sweep for a maniac with a weapon. Of course few will take the effort to read/remember any additional info, but in the off chance that at least one in every plane load of people does take notice, you’ve given a whole group of people an advantage. Additionally, airplanes use a track lighting feature that leads passengers to an exit in case of an emergency. I think this would be an easy install in any airport and could easily (and remotely) guide a mass exodus of travelers in the right direction, away from the threat.
Single, clear message
Problem: Webb ran into ushers who didn’t speak English all that well, officers that herded people back and forth across the same areas a couple times, and some officials yelling “run for your lives.” Each message seemed different, and at times contradictory.
Solution: In addition to communicating via the PA, our officials need to be trained to promote the same, unified message. Get the ushers, airline personnel, help desk, baggage claim people, TSA guys, store/restaurant employees, and police together in training. Let everyone know who they answer to, and in what order. That will get everyone on the same page and reduce the stress. Oh, and did you read the NY Post article that suggested the TVs were broadcasting the Olympics during all this? Shut that shit off and send out an alert. Nothing would help send a message that this isn’t a game like halting your favorite programming and displaying “ACTIVE SHOOTER ALERT, gather all passengers in your area to your nearest shop/restaurant and shelter-in-place until police arrive.” Or whatever. Maybe you’d rather just obliviously watch some Olympic Dressage before your impending airport-carpet nap. I wouldn’t.
Routes and alternate routes (including exits)
Problem: Webb’s group was left to fend for themselves and develop their own COAs (courses of action). Without knowing which area(s) the threat was coming from, the herd of people simply seemed to move away from whatever spooked them next. This forced Webb to continually analyze his situation and come up with his own strategies. There were also reports of stampedes. People were being funneled into other groups of people.
Solution: Airports need to have a route and an alternate route of escape for the vast majority of the unaffected travelers (those not immediately in harm’s way). Get these people to a secure area, immediately. Everyone in the airport should know how to funnel people to ground transportation, baggage claim, etc., and know two different ways to do it. Quickly emptying as much of the airport as possible gives law enforcement that much less to worry about.
Ability to quickly contain and isolate an area
Problem: If the shooter was isolated at a certain terminal, there seemed to be a lot potential for cross-contamination. There were reports of people leaving secured areas, moving into the terminal area after already leaving it for safety, etc.
Solution: Remotely close off access to terminals, whether that be by physically shutting off corridors leading to the affected gates/areas with retractable doors, preventing the tram system from running in the direction of the ‘shooter,’ reversing escalator directions, or, even more simply, preventing any movement of passengers to areas they have just left. It made no sense to Webb why travelers would be evacuated from the terminal and onto the tarmac, and then ushered back into the terminal. That group needed to be led, in a line, away from the terminal, and looped around to a secured holding area.
Additionally, Webb was able to quickly escape the fence at the airport, get in a cab, and be gone. Good for him, bad for us. Imagine if reinforcements were gathered at a similar junction, waiting to attack from a different angle just as things had seemed contained? Or imagine if the shooter was able to quickly stash his weapon, hop a fence, and flee in the first taxi he saw? Until a definitive all-clear was established, how in the world were vehicles allowed to continue to come and go?!
Sound advice/common sense/think outside the box
Problem: A lot of people were seen scrambling for their luggage. That shit slows you down. Like Webb and pretty much anyone that has faced even potential disaster head-on will tell you: things can be replaced, people cannot. And, instead of being flexible and letting the airport empty as quickly as possible, officials first prevented, then allowed, and then prevented access of thousands of people onto the tarmac.
Solution: Often, there’s no way to help someone out that lacks common sense. But that shouldn’t stop airport officials from pushing the message that all bags should be left where they are. One, they’re a hindrance to passengers’ mobility. And two, they are a security threat. Imagine trying to lock down an airport with reports of an active shooter with possible explosives. Now you have thousands of people clutching large objects sprinting in all directions. To be fair, some accounts stated that officials yelled for bags to be abandoned. And some accounts also noted that civilian guards and TSA ran for the hills. Hard to pass along sound advice to your customers when you’re ghost.
Being flexible and thinking outside the box allows for more solutions to present themselves. JFK has tight hallways, claustrophobic corridors, and low ceilings. The NY Mag account makes me wish I was stuffed in a little box at SERE again rather than mashed in a throbbing, sweating mass of human cattle that the author recounts. Let those people out onto the tarmac much earlier. Getting people away from the terminal has got to be the priority. No doubt this presents a problem to aircraft and runway security. But guess what, if people had been trampled to death in a false alarm, I bet JFK would’ve wished they’d just put everyone out onto the tarmac and dealt with remedying stationary aircraft later on. And if this thing was for real? Let the people create some time and distance between themselves and the threat. Air traffic control will halt all aircraft movement, and ground control will stop or redirect all vehicles. You’ve got to prioritize passenger safety.
While this is in no means a comprehensive report on all of America’s airport preparedness, it is intended to be a conversation starter in what Webb saw first hand that night at JFK. There was chaos, confusion, and what Webb described as a failure of a test run to combat an active shooter situation. It’s easy to sit back and critique what was or wasn’t done. And that’s actually precisely what every airport in America and around the world needs to do right now. Use this incident as an example and learn from it. While we have the time, pick apart every item in a long list of errors. Mold them and practice them to suit your specific environment.
It’s a delicate balance between security and individual freedom. The second we cave to fear and allow the airport screening process to take twice as long as it used to, we have lost, in some degree, to the terrorists. I’m not advocating drastic changes that clog up security lines. I’m advocating communication, leadership (from a single source when possible), and practice. And when I say practice, I mean every last person that would be in that airport at any point in time needs to interact with everyone else. After all, a quick-thinking cashier that corrals everyone near her gate into her store and shuts the metal door can be just as effective a leader as a SWAT team member.
Image Courtesy: Esquire.com via Gothamist
This article previously published on SOFREP 08.18.2016