Opinion: Former MIA Security Director – What can be done to protect airports from terrorism & mass shootings?
Editor’s Note: Herein below is an opinion piece, written by Lauren Stover, who was the former director Public Safety and Security operations for Miami International Airport and Miami-Dade County’s system of airports. She is also familiar to many from her appearances on Travel Channel’s TV Series “Airport 24/7: Miami”.
The recent mass shooting at Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) that left five people dead and eight wounded (some still critical as of this writing), is a tragedy that reopens the national door of discussion on airport security.
Of all the potential targets for terrorism, airports remain at the top of the list. Terrorists thrive on mass destruction and loss of life, along with shocking the public into fear of living a normal life.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government, law enforcement and the aviation industry have come together to implement many additional layers of security at airports, but we have lost sight of one of the most vulnerable areas, the wide open terminal building where no screening is conducted. I believe this is largely due to the costs and who is responsible for picking up the tab.
As Miami International Airport’s former Assistant Aviation Director in charge of Public Safety and Security, my job was to work with law enforcement and our federal partners in keeping the public safe and airport secure, all while staying within a budget so as not to increase the operating costs for airlines and airport business partners.
The Airport is a business. Sometimes security has to take a hit in order to keep the landing fees down, the bond ratings healthy, passenger fees stable and the overall airport to remain functional in generating the revenues to offset the costs. If you ask any security professional, security is budget-driven.
So the question is how can we prevent something like this from happening against the backdrop of the costs of operating an airport?
As MIA’s security director for more than a decade, I did not have a crystal ball that could tell me when and where there might be an attack, who might be behind it, how it would be conducted and whether there would be multiple attacks. In order to stay ahead of the threats on a daily basis, I had to identify them, know our vulnerabilities and understand the consequences if I did nothing about them.
So what are the threats and vulnerabilities to an airport? There are too many to list. They range from Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs (being hidden inside an aircraft, the terminal building or in a vehicle), to an Active Shooter, also Cyber Attacks and one that still is of great concern, the Insider Threat. These are just to name a few.
There’s also the Homegrown Violent Extremist (HVE). Many of these deadly attacks are carried out by individuals who are unstable or subscribe to a radical ideology, be that domestic or international, secular or religious.
In order to deter these potential attacks, we need to stay ahead of the threats with proper staffing, training, technology, intelligence sharing and a hardened critical infrastructure. Instead, we operate on a less cost-effective solution until something happens. Then we invest in what we should have had to begin with to get airport security the tools they need to carry out their mission.
For purposes of this editorial, I will focus on the Active Shooter scenario and how this could have potentially been mitigated (being sensitive to playing Monday morning quarterback.) Some airports, like Miami International Airport, train for this potential threat. At MIA, our Miami-Dade Police Department conducted a full live assault using simunition which took a great deal of coordination among all of the federal law enforcement and regulatory agencies operating at the airport as well as the airlines and business partners.
Other airports were invited to observe the mock exercise that involved a disgruntled individual rushing through a TSA checkpoint and shooting people. Our Fire Rescue was on scene to notionally treat the victims with a helicopter transport, with hospitals involved. This drill yielded a great deal of lessons learned during the hot wash following the exercise. It is something that all airports should exercise.
At Los Angeles, they unfortunately endured the real thing and have new security enhancements to help prevent a future occurrence.
That being said the mass shooting at FLL was a difficult one to intercept at the airport based on the fact that the individual allegedly transported his firearm, as permitted, in a checked bag but reassembled it in the bathroom. While the investigation continues more information will come to light explaining the motive and logistics.
However, in my opinion, this individual should have NEVER been in possession of a firearm to begin with. Most of these acts are conducted by individuals with mental illness. Realizing that this doesn’t mean their Second Amendment rights should be revoked, the system should have flagged this individual as a potential threat.
We’re too busy being politically correct to take such bold measures, but for any potential attack there are precursor indicators that should give authorities enough information to implement counter measures. This individual was certainly on a lot of radar screens but not enough to raise the red flag to the TSA to put something in his identifier letting the airlines and law enforcement know that this individual may need further scrutiny.
The shooter, Esteban Santiago, actually walked into an FBI office to disclose he heard voices in his head telling him to join ISIS, saying something about the CIA trying to recruit him. While the FBI followed their procedures in investigating this and handed it over to the local authorities who then put him into psychiatric evaluation only later to be released, something should have been done to prevent this individual from being permitted to ultimately have a weapon in an airport.
We don’t even allow law-abiding citizens with a concealed weapons license to carry (who could have probably shot this knucklehead before he killed anymore innocent people — but that’s a discussion for another day.) The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) maintains the Selectee and No-Fly lists.
Potentially individuals like Esteban should not slip through the cracks. Airport law enforcement should have been alerted that this individual had a firearm and his flight record should have been flagged. I have had the pleasure and privilege of working with Captain Roy Liddicott of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, who is the top dog for security at FLL. Had he known about this individual and that he allegedly gone online to jihadist forums to post “rants” and download terrorist videos since 2007, he would have likely had more security assets as a precautionary measure.
And I’m sure none of the law enforcement folks at FLL knew of this individual and that he was traveling through the airport, let alone the folks at Minneapolis St. Paul where he transited through, because no one bothered to connect the dots.
The Department of Homeland Security has some tough decisions to make. Among them: Does TSA change its procedures for transporting weapons in checked baggage? Do they prohibit carrying ammunition with the unloaded weapon causing the owner to purchase ammunition at their destination? Do we require law enforcement to be notified when passengers are traveling with a firearm in their checked bag with a special identifier alerting law enforcement that the bag has a checked firearm? Or do we stop being so politically correct and start passing information along so those on the receiving end of the individual in question have the ability to implement additional security measures if deemed appropriate.
Airports have the right to know. What happened to “see something say something.” That doesn’t apply within the realm of political correctness?
While this national discussion will carry on in the news and within the various federal agencies and industry forums affected by this, the burden will remain on airports and local law enforcement to shore up the front-line of airports. This includes the public areas where no one is screened, an easy target for a mass casualty incident.
Airports need to ensure there is a presence of law enforcement in these areas but that sometimes means increasing staffing. Most airport law enforcement agencies will argue they do not have enough officers and equipment to do their jobs. I would agree. Airports simply do not have enough law enforcement and trained security personnel to focus on their mission. However one needs to consider the costs of operating an airport and the impact on the airlines and ultimately the traveling public.
Plus, the airlines also have skin in this game and need to be active partners with law enforcement and airport security.
Gone are the days when airlines would have someone to check baggage tags as a passenger left baggage claim. It was too costly so the service is no longer provided. Airlines now look to law enforcement for solutions to baggage theft since they no longer provide bag tag checkers who could help in reporting potential theft and suspicious behavior.
So what can airports do with limited funds and growing threats? I would advocate that airports implement behavior detection training and mandate that all airport workers be trained in this methodology.
At Miami International Airport, I instituted behavior detection training in 2006 working closely with Miami-Dade Police Department. We ensured that all airport workers were trained in identifying suspicious behavior. This additional layer of security greatly helped in spotting suspicious behavior and ended up deterring potential criminal activity. While this is not the silver bullet, it is a cost effective approach to adding another tool in the tool box to deter someone from carrying out a potential attack.
Bottom line, everyone should be subject to screening, including passengers, airport employees and the general public. While this may be an expense airports are not willing to absorb, basic observation techniques can assist as a potential screening method.
Until we can keep guns out of the hands of those that shouldn’t possess them, airports will continue to have to put forth the measures to deter, detect, dismantle and destroy any potential attack.
The tragedy at Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport will hopefully yield some answers and improvements in security for airports dealing with these threats on a daily basis. As a society we need to realize that good security is not about how well we respond, rather how well we deter. Deterrence is the key to preventing the loss of life and not only protecting our airports, but protecting our Homeland.
Lauren Stover was the first woman to direct the Public Safety and Security operations for Miami International Airport and Miami-Dade County’s system of airports.
Stover, who retired in 2016, became the longest-serving Security Director spanning more than 10 years. She was responsible for the airport’s day-to-day Security, Police and Fire Rescue operations for the Department and is nationally-recognized for her experience in aviation security. She received the “Outstanding Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award” for 2010 – 2011 from United States Attorney Wilfredo F. Ferrer of the Southern District of Florida, a distinction never before given to Miami International Airport’s Security Director.
Stover, having served 36 years in local and federal government, was nationally known for her experience in crisis communications. In 2003, Stover was recruited by the newly created Transportation Security Administration (TSA) from her position as Associate Director for Public Affairs at Miami International Airport (MIA), to be the first Communications Director for the TSA in the Southeastern United States. In March 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security was created, Stover was then tapped to head Communications efforts making her the first communications professional to lead both TSA and DHS public affairs for the Southeastern U.S.
After receiving two awards from the Department of Homeland Security for her performance, Stover was promoted in 2004 by TSA to lead Strategic Communications efforts for more than 200 airports in 20 states across the eastern United States.
Stover was also hand-picked by DHS to stand up a Joint Information Center (JIC) in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina under the former Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who was the federal official to lead hurricane recovery efforts in 2005.
Stover’s knowledge of civil aviation security and incident management extends well beyond the aviation sector, having been the first Public Affairs Director in the Department of Homeland Security to test a key role in the National Response Plan during the largest weapons of mass destruction exercise in U.S. history.
Stover is also recognized for launching Behavior Detection Training for MIA employees in 2006 making MIA the first airport in the United States to mandate the training to all airport workers. Due to Stover’s efforts, all 40,000 employees at Miami International Airport have received the training resulting in her receiving national and international recognition for her efforts including winning a National Association of Counties Award for the program. She was also contacted by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for a documentary, “The Nature of Things,” that featured behavior detection and showcased her efforts as a leading pioneer in the United States and the first U.S. airport security director to mandate the training.
Stover also represented U.S. airports testifying before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee in April 2007 on the issue of screening airport workers and was one of six women in 2007 to receive an “International Women’s Day Award” from World Trade Center Miami. She was also featured in a worldwide National Geographic documentary, “Inside MIA”, in her role as MIA’s Security Director as well as Travel Channel’s “Airport 24/7: Miami” which has been seen by over 35 million viewers in the United States with 25 episodes broadcasting around the world. She was named by South Florida Business Leader as one of South Florida’s top leaders earning her the ”2011 Women Extraordinaire Award”. Stover is widely known in the aviation industry and has been invited to address security professionals at conferences in the United States and internationally. She also served on the Executive Board for the Southeast Regional Domestic Security Task Force under the State of Florida.