Airport security

It is everyone’s worst nightmare; a gunman rampaging through a busy airport. Earlier this year, passengers at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) reported hearing loud noises, and ran for their lives, creating a scene of panic and confusion. Authorities deemed that no gunshots had been fired, and LAX gradually returned to normal.

However, in June, three attackers arrived in a taxi and began firing at the terminal entrance of Istanbul's Ataturk airport, killing 41 people. Cue more panic and confusion, and a scene of utter chaos.

Two very different outcomes, but both show just how vulnerable airports are.

Everbridge, a global provider of critical communications and emergency management solutions, recently ran a survey that found 79% of respondents from a range of industries were not fully prepared for an active shooter incident.

Here, Everbridge’s director of technology practice Michael Cardarelli explains how airports can prepare for the unthinkable.

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Gary Peters: Your survey shows that nearly two-thirds of respondents do not run any active shooter drills at all. Why do you think this is?

Michael Cardarelli: It’s hard to say given the severity of that type of situation. It could be as simple as companies believing that the likelihood of an active shooter happening on their premises is small. In truth, it is, but that is a dangerous gamble. Organisations run fire drills at least twice a year so why not also prepare for an active shooter situation?

GP: The survey also reveals that 39% don’t have a communications plan in place for active shooter events – that seems quite a shocking statistic. Did it surprise you?

MC: Yes, it definitely surprised us. Communication plays a critical role in being prepared for these situations. If you don’t have the relevant contact information or know how to target the appropriate audience; these are decisions that you’ll need to make during an emergency, and in the midst of the chaos.

That requires time that some simply don’t have when someone could be in immediate danger. Having a plan, with a strategy around notification and escalation to the correct response teams in place, dramatically speeds response and reduces human error.

Companies cannot rely solely on police and other government assistance. If you take a look at active shooter events that occurred between 2000 and 2013, 60% ended before the police arrived.

GP: In your opinion, how prepared are airports?

MC: Airports are more prepared than most, as there is an industry-wide focus following the active shooter incidents at LAX and Houston Intercontinental Airports in recent years. In addition, airports are always working to improve response, and most airports engage in regular active-shooter exercises.

One of the core areas of focus for airports is timely communication to all working in the airport environment, as well as the traveling public. 

This is a significant shift from the norm in years past, where an airport typically only focused on communication to their internal employees. For example, at a large hub airport, the airport may only have a few thousand direct employees. Today, most hubs are also focused on communication to the hundreds of thousands of passengers and badged employees that could be there daily.

GP: We recently saw the false alarm at LAX, but how rare, or common, are active shooter incidents?

MC: There are really two questions here. First, you may ask, how common are active shooter incidents? The answer is that they are far too common.

But, what is the public’s perception of the frequency of the active shooter in an airport? Here is where you find the answer to why we have had several false alarms at major US airports in recent weeks, where numerous passengers legitimately felt that they heard shots fired, triggering a stampede for the exits.

The reality is that the 24/7 news cycle – and the sensationalising of these events – have made our passengers hyper sensitive. This creates new challenges that we’ve never seen before, such as a car accident outside baggage claim triggering a panic that threatens a self-evacuation of thousands from one of the world’s busiest airports.

A few years ago, if someone yelled “active shooter”, people would have given them an odd look and wondered what it meant, or perhaps assumed that they had too much to drink in the departures lounge. Today, one person using these words can trigger a mass exodus.

GP: What are the main challenges for airports?

MC: These incidents are measured in seconds, not hours, so there is no time to develop a response plan on the fly; rather, a pre-defined plan must be executed via the click of a button. This focus on developing scenario-based plans, and providing the public, employees and responder teams with the specific and clear instructions needed during an active shooter incident is literally the difference between life and death for potentially hundreds of people.

A second challenge [comes with mobile phones], in which people are unable to place a traditional phone call. We have been speaking about this vulnerability for years, yet we still find many people unable to grasp the fact that their phone may be nothing more than a paperweight when they face their most critical incident.

Using SMS text, landlines and other communication is key when facing a situation in which mobile use will spike to exponential levels.

The third challenge is communicating directly with the public, including passengers, as well as those who may be only at the airport for a layover or there to greet family.

At Everbridge, we have the FEMA wireless emergency alerts (WEA) programme, which can send geographically targeted notifications directly to everyone who is at and around the airport, warning them to seek shelter, evacuate, and so on. This was used by LAX a few weeks ago, during the recent false alarm.

GP: How does your technology work in practice?

MC: Well, let’s say an active situation is taking place at an airport. Our technology will allow security professionals to quickly communicate with passengers and staff via, for example, automated SMS text, voice, mobile app, digital signage or desktop alerts, with people near that location to direct them on what actions to take.

It will target specific locations with the appropriate message, which may be different based on an individual’s proximity to danger. An airport’s operations team can send out an alert telling any passengers or personnel in terminal 2 to “shelter in place” while at the same time telling people in terminal 3 to “evacuate immediately”.

[We work with] 24 of the busiest 25 airports in North America, and the average airport sends dozens of operational notifications on a daily basis, in addition to their emergency notifications.

GP: Is there a need for a change in attitude? Or, is it more a case of not having the right technology in place?

MC: I think it’s a bit of both. In terms of attitude, we need to accept that this is the new normal, and that both process and technology need to be perpetually reviewed.

While engaging in exercises and stressing the importance of preparedness will help organisations, if they lack the technology to get the right message to the right people at the right time, that’s a problem.

GP: What’s your advice to airports? What should they do?

MC: When dealing with threats such as this, part of the solution is technology, and part of it is improved process. 

I always advise our clients to stay closely engaged with us, as we publish updates to our active shooter and other communication plans following each incident, to enhance and evolve the baseline communications plans and incorporate all of the lessons learned. Each of these iterations incorporates something we’ve learned, either from the technology or the process perspective, and the key here is to continue to work to improve on the response to these evolving threats.