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Safety at the airport: It’s not just after you get through security anymore

Last week, as I was putting the finishing touches on a presentation I am doing on handling communications around an active shooter situation for the Airports Council International (ACI) trade association’s annual gathering of risk managers, I suddenly had a bunch of new material to discuss after Friday’s tragic events in Fort Lauderdale.

Unfortunately, airports are becoming increasingly common targets for violence, and their exposure points are being uncovered by those who seek to do harm to innocent people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. From Brussels to Los Angeles and Oklahoma City to Fort Lauderdale, travelers are finding themselves in harm’s way outside of established secure zones.

While TSA officials, airports and airlines have done a good job keeping weapons out of secure zones or making sure their transport is closely regulated, it’s less clear what to do about the suddenly vulnerable ticket counters, baggage claim areas and parking decks. I have seen suggestions that range from making airport terminals more secure by putting checkpoints at roadway entrances, to increasing canine patrols in these non-secure areas as a deterrent.

But where exactly do we put those checkpoints at, say, New York’s LaGuardia Airport for example? Anyone who has flown in and out of that zoo knows there simply isn’t any room off the highway exits for that. And who pays for the extra security detail if we go that route? Airport and municipality budgets are already sagging under the enormous cost of security as it is. Whatever the answer, it won’t be cheap and it won’t be easy, but it may now be necessary.

One other point I plan to make at the ACI conference is about the importance of communication. I’m a PR guy so it’s an obvious one, but the Fort Lauderdale situation underscored this necessity again. Law enforcement’s job is safety, and airport officials have to work alongside them in situations like this, but someone has to be responsible for proactive communications, even in an evolving situation.

In the case of Fort Lauderdale, too many people were left in the dark, given conflicting instructions by law enforcement or even treated like criminals themselves during the evacuation. With technology available today to broadly issue information via mobile phones (think Amber Alert) or actively engage via social media, the chaos didn’t have to continue once rumors of a second shooter were debunked. Communication continues to be a key component of addressing any crisis event, and certainly can be a difference-maker for people involved in events of this magnitude.

I’ll provide an update on what I learn at the ACI conference. In the meantime, if you have any interest in discussing further, please drop me an email or call me at 216-241-3073.

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