In the year since a gunman killed five people at the Fort Lauderdale airport, local government and law enforcement officials have made efforts to address vulnerabilities exposed by the Jan. 6 shooting and the chaos that ensued.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office said it has outfitted deputies with earpieces or shoulder radios to prevent the spread of misinformation during a future threat. It also told officers where to park and meet when arriving at the airport to avoid the gridlock caused by abandoned police vehicles that blocked evacuation routes.
Airport officials have stockpiled 5,000 bottles of water and snacks, a spokesman said, to help prevent stranded passengers from becoming dehydrated and hungry, as many were after the shooting. The airport has upgraded its emergency operations center. Some deputies patrolling the airport are now carrying rifles.
The changes come after a South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation, and subsequentinternal evaluations of how local officials responded, which showed that communication and training breakdowns fueled the tumult that erupted long after the lone gunman was subdued. Although accused shooter Esteban Santiago was arrested within 90 seconds, a flurry of false reports of gunshots 90 minutes later — many of them coming from law enforcement officers, within earshot of passengers — sparked an uncontrolled, mass evacuation from all four airport terminals.
“It’s a work in progress,” said Broward County Mayor Beam Furr. “There was a long list of recommendations and we’re working our way down that list. We’ve not got to the end of it by any means.”
The Broward County Aviation Department, which runs the airport, has taken steps to avoid passenger and employee confusion that exacerbated the response, adding access to an internet-based emergency alert system, planning an active shooter drill this spring and training all airport employees in basic first aid and evacuation plans.
But many issues identified in the aftermath of the deadliest airport shooting in U.S. history did not lead to action.
Transportation Security Administration agents are taught to first run and hide in an emergency. A mismatch of rules govern passengers who travel with guns in checked luggage. And airports are still not required to have a plan to care for and communicate with passengers stranded outside terminals.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose district includes the airport, told the Sun Sentinel in April that she planned to introduce legislation to address failings in worker training, evacuation planning and communications that contributed to the frenzy. She held multiple discussions with local and federal security officials and government representatives last year.
Wasserman Schultz said in an interview Friday that she is planning to introduce a bill Monday requiring major airports to have a center where airport staff and law enforcement can deal with emergencies in real time.
“The airport and law enforcement are addressing deficiencies that we saw in training, planning and responding to a tragedy like this but there is more work to do,” she said. “I am, and have been, working on legislation that would address that and would focus on making sure we could pull all these agencies together in an operations center.”
Internal evaluations by the airport and Sheriff’s Office questioned the Transportation Security Administration’s directive to employees to run or hide in an emergency, and fight only as a last resort. The reports said TSA employees may have contributed to the confusion, stoking fear among travelers. Some travelers said they were trampled in the panic. A TSA spokesman said the agency has not made any changes to the policy, or how it runs security at the Fort Lauderdale airport, but it is working with local officials on training. The agency took part in an emergency response drill at the airport on Dec. 1.
Airlines have differing rules for travelers retrieving checked guns from baggage claim areas at the nation’s airports.
Santiago, authorities said, took a one-way flight from Alaska, checking only one item — a handgun and ammunition in a locked case. The Sheriff’s Office said he collected his gun at a Delta Airlines service desk, loaded it in a bathroom and then returned to the Terminal 2 baggage claim area, where he opened fire.