Phone system failure in LAX shooting

FILE - In this Nov. 1, 2013 file photo provided to the AP, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting.  (AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 1, 2013 file photo provided to the AP, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting. (AP Photo, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — 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 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. 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 started.

Douglas Laird, a former security director for Northwest Airlines who owns an aviation security consulting business, was surprised to learn of the issue with the emergency phone. Most 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 review also found broken “panic buttons.” Those devices 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.

Though TSA officers told airport officials that an officer hit the panic button at the time of the shooting, there’s no evidence — video or electronic — it happened.

Later testing revealed that another terminal’s entire system of buttons was down and airport police beefed up patrols until it was fixed, one of the officials said.

The phone and panic button problems are the latest issues to emerge from the review of the emergency response to the Nov. 1 incident. The AP previously reported that the only two armed officers on duty in Terminal 3 were out of position when the shooting began and that medical help wasn’t quickly provided to the Transportation Security Administration officer who was the only fatality.

J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees representing 45,000 TSA employees, said Friday that TSA officers count on security equipment to work in an emergency and reports of such “widespread equipment defects and security gaps at LAX are deeply troubling.” He added: “Preventable issues like this cannot and must not be tolerated.”

California state Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona, will hold a hearing Friday to review the LAX shooting.

“I was shocked to hear that they have these systems in place, and they’re not functioning,” Rodriguez said. “Why is it, and who’s responsible for it? It shouldn’t take these emergencies to find these problems are occurring.”

The attack killed TSA Officer Gerardo Hernandez, the first on-duty fatality in the agency’s history, 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.

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 identified a number of problems. Among them:

— 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.

Earlier AP reporting revealed that the two armed 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.

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.

TSA Administrator John Pistole has said the agency is conducting its own review of airport security which should be submitted to Congress in the spring.

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