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"Editorial: Changes needed to prevent Fort Lauderdale airport chaosagain"


Thursday, April 27, 2017



Changes needed to prevent airport chaos again

By The Orlando (FL) Sun Sentinel Editorial Board



Communication failures — aggravated by false reports of more gunfire — led to the panic and prolonged chaos that enveloped Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6 after five people were killed and six wounded at Terminal 2 baggage claim.


Though the lone gunman was subdued 90 seconds after he opened fire, the ensuing turmoil lasted more than 12 hours, causing greater distress and injury to some.


Now, Sun Sentinel reporters Megan O'Matz, David Fleshler and Stephen Hobbs have taken a detailed look at the deadliest airport shooting in American history. And their reporting suggests the chaos was exacerbated by a lack of communication, a lack of good planning and even a lack of police radio bandwidth.


Before saying another word, let us first say this: the Broward Sheriff's Office deserves credit for quickly capturing the shooter, Esteban Santiago, and preventing any further loss of life.


That said, this is no time for the agency to take a victory lap or strike a defensive pose. Rather, its task now is to objectively analyze what went wrong that day, with the goal of preventing such pandemonium from ever happening again, at any airport.


Three clear problem areas need to be addressed.


Too little public communication. Panicked passengers said no one was telling them what was happening and in the absence of information, misinformation helped create chaos.


"Nobody had any idea what they were doing," said Gary Bryant, a Canadian tourist first stranded on the tarmac, then in a hangar, for more than 10 hours.


Broward Sheriff Scott Israel won't comment in detail until an after-action report is completed. Still, he insists plenty of information was disseminated.


"I walked around to people in Terminal 2 and I told them what was going on," Israel told the editorial board.


But a face-to-face communications strategy hardly seems sufficient for reaching thousands of people in multiple airport buildings and outside areas. An estimated 12,000 travelers and thousands of employees were believed to be at the airport that day.


Ninety minutes after the shooting, fears escalated when false reports of a second shooter — in Terminal 4, in Terminal 1 and maybe the whole airport — put passengers and employees on the run. Eventually, the entire airport was evacuated.


Without question, confusion will erupt in the face of dangerous unknowns. But in terror-like events, law enforcement needs a better communications strategy to protect public safety. Israel says the situation was "controlled chaos" and everything was done "excellently," but his assessment is not universally shared.


"A collective voice of leadership or direction was absent," said Frank Biancucci of Ontario, Canada, who spent seven hours on the tarmac and five more on a sidewalk.


Radio challenges. After the crime scene was secured, the airport began to return to business as usual. But after word spread about more gunfire, pandemonium broke out and BSO put out a call for backup.


Our reporters found at least 840 officers from various agencies responded, not including the FBI, which refused to say how many people it sent.


The crush of law enforcement overloaded the county's aged public-safety radio system. Indeed, some officers had trouble accessing it.


How is it possible — all these years after 9/11, when too many first responders died in part because of poor radio communications — that we still face problems with the radio systems? Taxpayers have spent many, many millions of dollars for police radio systems over the years. Yet in this real-life test of the system, some officers were shut out.


If the issue is that too much backup was called in, that needs to be addressed. And if too many officers plugged into the radio system, protocols need to be established that reserve bandwidth for those who need it most.


But it is long past time to get this radio issue resolved.


Inadequate evacuation plan. While the airport has a public evacuation plan, the Sun Sentinel discovered it's not designed for major events like this.


"It's not just Fort Lauderdale," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose district includes the airport. "It's not the only airport that is badly in need of a mass evacuation plan."


Wasserman Schultz expects to file legislation after she absorbs the after-action reports. One might address better evacuation plans for airports. Another might address how travelers are reunited with their guns and ammunition. Let's remember this disaster happened after Santiago retrieved his gun and ammo at baggage claim.   


So, too, should Congress put teeth into the Gerardo Hernandez Airport Security Act of 2015, the law named for the TSA officer killed in a 2013 shooting spree at Los Angeles International Airport.


The law requires airports to maintain action plans for security incidents, which can include plans for caring for people outside the airport, for a unified law enforcement command and for communicating with stranded travelers. But the law doesn't mandate that these issues be addressed, only that they "may" be included in the plans.


Mandating certain action steps would be costly. But without making essential elements mandatory, the law is essentially useless.


For now, Broward County has hired a consulting firm to produce an after-action report that details the response to the airport shooting. And BSO is working on its own after-action report, which Israel said should be completed within weeks.


The primary job of law enforcement is to keep people safe, and as we said at the start, BSO's actions prevented the further loss of life that terrible day.


Still, the aftermath of the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting shows things could have — and should have — been done better.


Let us learn the lessons, for next time.


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