United States: Airport Active Shooter Incident — What Can Happen In Just 15 Seconds, And What Business Needs To Know

Last Updated: October 4 2017
Article by James L. Curtis and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis:  A recent active shooter incident at an international airport illustrates both how quickly an incident may be over, yet how ancillary impacts take much longer to resolve. While the shooter was apprehended in less than two minutes, the international airport was shut down for most of a full day, impacting over 500 employees and 10,000 customers, and 20,000 personal items were lost.  The after-action report offers some lessons learned.

At the World Safety Organization International Environmental and Occupational Safety and Health Symposium this week, William G. Thompson, IV, the Occupational Safety & Health Manager and Safety Management System Administrator at Broward County Aviation Department, including the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (Airport), presented the findings from the January 6, 2017 active shooter incident at the Airport.  Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport Active Shooter Incident and Post-Event Response January 6, 2017 After-Action Report (August 15, 2017) (Report or Findings).  Thompson was at the Airport that day, watched the events unfold, and cooperated in the resolution and the preparation of the Report.

The Report indicates that "on January 6, 2017, a lone gunman intentionally discharged a firearm at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport killing five and wounding six innocent bystanders.  Approximately 90 minutes after the initial incident, speculation of additional firearms discharged in other areas within [the Airport] caused panic and led to a chaotic self-evacuation of persons throughout the airport."  The Report states that it was developed in accordance with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program.  Specifically, the Report analyzes the response, the emergency and operational coordination, and the facility recovery and post event activities.

Factually, the Report shows that the actual shooting event, in the Terminal 2 baggage area,  lasted less than 80 seconds and ended when the "perpetrator ran out of ammunition, laid down on the ground, and surrendered to law enforcement officers at the scene."  Of the eleven people who were shot, six (6) were wounded, and five (5) were killed.  Approximately 40 others were injured in the panic during the initial shooting event (First Incident). Terminals 1, 3, and 4 remained operational at this time.

The Second Incident started at approximately an hour and a half later, when radio communications indicated unsubstantiated reports of additional shots fired in Terminal 1, and one of the parking garages. As a result, the "response among passengers, tenants, and airport employees triggered uncontrolled and unmanaged self-evacuation of personnel, many of whom ran into secured areas and onto active aprons. Some received minor injuries during the self-evacuation."  Because of the breach of restricted areas on the airfield during the self-evacuation, and the ongoing investigation of the actual crime scene in Terminal 2, law enforcement began sweeping and clearing each of the four (4) terminals at the Airport to ensure that all areas were clear of any threats and to re-establish secure areas.

Because of the incurrence into secure zones, the FAA issued a ground stop notice closing the Airport to all but emergency flights.  Subsequently, airport operations were officially terminated and all airport roadways were closed to incoming traffic.  Law enforcement continued clearing the rest of the airport until approximately 8:30 PM, over seven hours later. The airport remained closed for the remainder of the day, but reopened to commercial flights early the following day.

This incident provides a good reference for business to consider in developing their own corporate active shooter programs.  For instance, in this case responding airport employees were initially denied access to areas to which access was required to support response operations.  In addition, while the actual shooting incident was over in ninety seconds, during the subsequent response approximately 500 airport employees were interrupted in their jobs, and 10,000 passengers were bused to a nearby facility for food and shelter, and to assist them in connecting to other means of transportation "As result of the chaos that ensued following the shooting, more than 20,000 personal items were left unclaimed at the airport."  The active shooter incident response must be planned for as well as the incident itself.

The Report provides "Lessons Learned," including several points to support preparedness within the aviation sector and among aviation stakeholders.  Many of their recommendations are well placed in any industry:

  • Ongoing periodic incident command system training and exercises, support capabilities-based planning, coordination with airport stakeholders, and development of competencies among airport personnel to support critical incident response.
  • Airport emergency plans should be updated and reviewed at least annually or when changes in resources, personnel, or threats occur.
  • Airport emergency plans and/or companion response plans should address a full range of hazards and threats, identify a concept of operations in an incident command system context, and address all areas of the airport including public areas and auxiliary properties, such as rental car facilities.
  • Building relationships with external response partners through advanced planning, training and exercises is vital to support a common understanding of roles, responsibilities, resources, facility design and layout, and communication procedures under single or unified command conditions.
  • Coordination between airports and jurisdictional (city/county/state) emergency management agencies supports emergency response operations through effective communications, resourcing and resource management.
  • Airports should consider developing a written description of airport operations and airport physical layout specifically for external emergency responders who may respond to airport emergencies. Periodic tours for external emergency responders are also recommended to support an effective understanding of resources, evacuation plans, and other potential response needs.
  • Exercises conducted at airports should include active shooter scenarios as well as other locally-relevant hazard and threat scenarios identified local emergency management agencies).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Authors
James L. Curtis
Craig B. Simonsen
 
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