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LAX Terminal Shooter: Run Until You Feel Stupid

Business woman running

 

What should you do in an active shooter event? Did LAX do the right thing? Was the evacuation effective?

There is a phrase I’ve heard in the aircraft rescue and fire fighting community, in answer to the question, “if you’re in a plane that crash, how far should you run from the scene of the accident.”  Answer: run until you feel stupid.

With an active shooter incident this is good advice. Again, I like the City of Houston police department video for citizen tactics during active shooter: Run – Hide – Fight (in that order). With gunshots ringing out and bullets flying through the terminal, we’re not worried about an orderly evacuation, we’re just worried about getting people the hell out of there by any means necessary (remember the kids jumping out the windows at Columbine?).

When the shooting begins, unless you have a personal body guard, a certain amount of your personal protection is your own responsibility. You should run immediately away (if able), using any point of egress. Don’t worry about running onto the tarmac of an airport. When this type of incident happens, the FAA will stop flight operations and the police will eventually come find you and get you back to where you need to be. Just get away from the shooting.

After Columbine High School, police response to an active shooter changed from secure the facility and negotiate, to, immediately get to the shooter, passing up people who are evacuating, hiding or may be injured. When the dike breaks, don’t worry about rebuilding the dam just yet, first, plug the hole! Once the shooter is down, realize that the police do not know if this is a single-shooter or if there are others. Is this a coordinated attack with others in hiding amongst the evacuated citizens? Don’t be surprised if you’re running across the ramp or a parking lot and are ordered to get down on the ground by police. They are putting you there for your safety and for theirs.

Next, as airport operations return to normal, there’s going to be cancelled flights, delayed flights, people sprawled out all over the airport, the highways, local hotels, etc. It’s going to take time to get everything back in order. Have patience, this is not a normal situation. While the airport emergency plans are drafted to provide public notification, handle aircraft incidents, etc., during a security incident the FBI will be taking over the investigation. That means that some of the things you would expect to hear, public announcements, Tweets on the status of the airport or particular flights, may not be happening yet because the FBI is controlling the outflow of information – often for security purposes (remember, they don’t know yet if this is an isolated attack).

As we move farther away from the actual incident in Los Angeles the after-action reports and lessons learned will now start to be evaluated. TSA Administrator John Pistole has also called for an over-arching review of airport security policies. I imagine what will come of that is a call for more police officers in the public areas of terminal buildings, including closer watch over the screening checkpoint.

I heard on NPR this morning someone saying that there aren’t specific regulatory requirements for law enforcement at an airport, which is wrong (to be fair, their comments may have been out of context too). There are regulations calling for airport police. They are outlined in Title 49 of the US Code of Federal Regulations Part 1542.215. The regulations call for airport police in numbers to be able to respond to incidents at the screening checkpoints, to meet aircraft that have experienced acts of unlawful interference and to support the contingency and incident management plans of that particular airport.

The industry should not let the death of TSA officer Gerardo I. Hernandez be for naught. This is a warning alarm and in my opinion I’m glad it happened at an airport that is well prepared for this sort of attack. There are several airports that do not have the police presence nor the training and equipment that they need to successfully stop this type of attack so quickly. The police at those airports need the support of their elected officials to acquire the personnel, tools and training needed to defend against these threats.

And you can be sure the bad guys are watching how just one person was able to cause so much damage and shut down the airport so quickly. Now, imagine if you will if this was a Mumbai style active shooter, or even just a Columbine style attack with two shooters and pipe bombs.

I think what we will see moving forward in terms of legislation or regulations (or it may come out by Security Directive) are more police ordered into the pubic areas, including the screening checkpoint, and better armed and armored. In terms of airport design, hard-points and bullet proof glass in some areas (like they do in at the Leonardo daVinci International Airport in Rome) for officers to take cover behind while returning fire, plus catwalks and overwatch locations near the public and screening areas may be in order.

This is also a huge wake up call for an industry and a society that thought threats to aviation had largely gone away or were focused on airplanes, not airports.

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One Response to LAX Terminal Shooter: Run Until You Feel Stupid

  1. Very good article, Jeff, and an especially appropriate closing sentence. Airports (and airlines) have never been in the business of solving the problem of terrorist attacks. They have just been responsible for protecting their own assets (primarily access to the aircraft) and, in so doing, pushing the problem to softer targets. In the LAX case, the softer target was the front door of the airport terminal. It could just as easily have been the front of the downtown shopping mall, the football stadium or the steps of congress. Hopefully, this incident will, indeed, cause all agencies and organizations to look at the issue from a larger perspective, finally, and stop continuing to solve the problem of terrorism as it it manifested itself on 9/11.

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