Report: Emergency communications failed in LAX shooting
An LAX police dispatcher who received a call seconds after a gunman opened fire last year didn't know where to send officers because no one was on the line
By Tami Abdollah
LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles International Airport police dispatcher who received a call seconds after a gunman opened fire last year didn't know where to send officers because no one was on the line and the airport communications system didn't identify that the call was coming from a security checkpoint emergency phone, two officials told The Associated Press.
A screening supervisor in the sprawling airport's Terminal 3 picked up the phone but fled before responding to a dispatcher's questions because the gunman was approaching with a high-powered rifle and spraying bullets, according to two officials briefed on preliminary findings of a review of the emergency response to the Nov. 1 incident. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because the final report won't be released until next month.
One of the officials likened the situation to a 911 call but police not knowing what address to go to. Airport dispatchers knew something was wrong but didn't know where to send help because the system didn't identify locations of its emergency phones. After asking questions and receiving no answers, the dispatcher hung up. An airline contractor working in the terminal called dispatch directly from his cellphone, and officers were dispatched 90 seconds after the shooting.
Douglas Laird, a former security director for Northwest Airlines who owns an aviation security consulting business, said most emergency phone systems he's seen indicate the origin of a call.
If "dispatch doesn't know where the call is coming from, that shows there's a serious flaw, obviously," said Laird, who has conducted security surveys at about 100 airports around the world. He was not involved in the review of the LA airport shooting.
Officials with Los Angeles World Airport, the agency that runs LAX, declined to comment on any aspects of the review until the report is issued next month.
The broad review of the emergency response included interviews with airport staff, law enforcement and first responders, reviews of camera footage, dispatch logs and 911 calls. While it found that the response was swift, the investigation conducted by airport staff and an outside contractor also identified a number of problems. Among them:
— Broken "panic buttons" that when hit are supposed to automatically call for help and activate a camera giving airport police a view of the area reporting trouble. Two of the dozen or so buttons in Terminal 3 weren't working and several others around the airport were defective. Later testing revealed that another terminal's system of buttons was down and airport police beefed up patrols until it was fixed, one of the officials said. Though TSA officers told airport officials that an officer hit the panic button, there's no evidence — video or electronic — it happened.
— Anyone calling 911 at the airport is routed to the California Highway Patrol or Los Angeles Police Department, not airport police dispatchers.
— The airport has no system allowing for simultaneous emergency announcements throughout the complex.
— Most cameras in the terminal provided fixed and often limited views of areas or weren't located at key spots such as curbs, making it difficult for investigators to learn how and where the gunman arrived at the airport.
The attack killed Transportation Security Administration Officer Gerardo Hernandez and injured two other TSA officers and a passenger.
Paul Ciancia, 24, who'd moved from Pennsville, N.J., to Los Angeles two years prior, is accused of targeting TSA officers. He has pleaded not guilty to 11 federal charges, including murder of a federal officer.
Earlier AP reporting revealed that the only two armed airport police officers assigned to the area of the shooting weren't in Terminal 3 at the time. Both were on breaks and had yet to notify dispatchers, as required, so neither was in position to call in the shooting.
Once dispatchers put out the call for help 90 seconds later, it took nearly two more minutes before armed officers arrived. Ciancia was shot and taken into custody near gate 35, deep inside the terminal, soon afterward.
The AP also found that it took 33 minutes for Hernandez to be wheeled out of the terminal to waiting medical personnel. He was pronounced dead at the hospital after surgeons worked on him for an hour. A coroner's news release later said he likely was dead within two to five minutes after being shot multiple times.
In response to the shooting, the Los Angeles Fire Department already has announced it will train more tactical paramedics who can more quickly enter dangerous areas. Los Angeles police are training their officers on how to use combat-style trauma kits.
TSA Officer Victor Payes, who has worked at LAX for six years and is former president of the local union, said the inability of dispatchers to locate the origin of the emergency call highlights local TSA officers' concerns about overall communication with airport police. He said no general instruction on how to use the phones has been provided.
"A lot of these protocols that have been set up, we find, at least on the TSA end, it's supervisor-driven, and the employees, the subordinates, do not necessarily know many of the protocols," Payes said. "If someone told me to pick up the phone, I wouldn't know what to say."
The review recommends instituting emergency protocol and evacuation training for all airport employees.
"We realize in incidents like this, how quick you are or how fast you are at responding to incidents is generally going to be the difference between how many people get hurt or don't get hurt," Airport Police Chief Patrick Gannon said in a recent interview. He said the airport in its review had looked at ways to speed up notification from TSA, dispatch and also within the airport itself.
Since the shooting, Gannon said airport staff worked to ensure that all airport employees have the airport police dispatch number in their cellphones.
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