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False reports of airport shooters cause chaos, security review

False “active shooter” reports at two major U.S. airports this month signal the need for new training and strategies, a domestic terrorism prevention expert said.

Word-of-mouth and social-media reports of an active shooter at a Los Angeles International Airport terminal on Sunday caused passengers, some of them panicked, to evacuate through federal security checkpoints without the proper screening, airport officials said.

Many passengers “self-evacuated” out of terminals and onto restricted areas of the airfield, according to an LAX news release, which said the incident caused 27 arriving flights to be diverted to other airports and delays affecting 281 other flights.

Meanwhile, a multi-agency panel will review an incident that took place at JFK International Airport in New York on Aug. 14, a spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration told AMI Newswire on Wednesday. That event also turned out to be a false shooting scare and prompted New York Sen. Charles Schumer to call for a federal investigation into what he said was “mass chaos.”

“As a long-standing practice, TSA reviews every incident at airports to determine if we can improve our performance and procedures,” the spokesperson said in an email. “We continue to work with our partners at JFK and fully support ongoing reviews of this incident.”

Chris Grollnek, a security consultant and founder of the company CGPGMG, told AMI that such false shooter reports are not increasing and that another such false alarm occurred last year at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.

“It looks like these things are on the rise, but no, they are not,” Grollnek said.

He stressed that training and educating civilians to take common-sense actions when such emergencies arise can reduce panic and indeed save lives if the situation turns out to be real. Such training could occur through a division of the Department of Homeland Security, Grollnek said.

Orderly exits after hearing a warning, acting in unison and learning the proper techniques to evade and escape a potentially dangerous situation are all essential, he said.

“It’s simple, it’s common sense and it sounds super easy,” said Grollnek, who added that spending to ensure public safety should be spread out, with one-third going to police, one-third to civilian education and one-third to companies.

He stressed that travelers should be encouraged to report truly out-of-place activities that don’t look right to authorities. More problems can be created when people do not report unusual activities, Grollnek said.

Schumer said that although 200 officers responded to the scare at JFK, the mayhem grounded flights for hours. And the spread of misinformation led to a state of mass confusion that requires a thorough federal inquiry, the senator said.

“The panic and chaos that ensued from the ‘shots fired’ scare at JFK … raises very disturbing questions about the state of preparedness and coordination of response if – heaven forbid – a real attack were to occur,” Schumer said in a prepared statement.

He also cited allegations that TSA agents left their positions, misinformed the public and possibly added to the overall confusion at JFK. Schumer said the public, flight crews and other personnel at the airport were given virtually no useful information for long periods of time.

Grollnek echoed some of the senator’s concerns, saying that the police response at JFK was inaccurate and inappropriate.

“They didn’t follow their own protocols,” he said. “They followed along with the mass hysteria.”

Grollnek said social media is virtually worthless in such situations, when time is critical and the propensity for violence is overwhelming if the shooter report proves true. Social media only works as well as the network it’s on, so travelers need to be thinking of orderly escape routes rather than examining the latest Twitter post.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey did send out a social media post in the wake of the JFK incident.

“Preliminary investigation does not indicate shots were fired at JFK,” authorities said the day after the panic. “There are no injuries. At this time, no gun shells or other evidence of shots fired has been found. The terminal was evacuated out of an abundance of caution.”

The Los Angeles incident occurred in the evening after airport police officers detained and released a person dressed in black and armed with what turned out to be a plastic sword. Although police defused that incident, immediately afterwards, reports began to come in about an active shooter in the airport’s Terminal 8 and some people reported hearing gunshots.

A Los Angeles County wireless alert system also went into operation for the first time, airport officials said. It sent messages about the situation to all smartphones within five miles of the airport.

The TSA statement said the panel that will review the incident at JFK had been announced by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.