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Learning from Brussels: Rethinking Airport Security

There are lessons to be learned from any disaster or crisis, even the most senseless and tragic. After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, for example, the CDC learned that service workers such as maintenance, janitorial, and security staff were at a disadvantage during the crisis, since they did not receive training in emergency evacuation protocols. In response, the Port Authority made an effort to train its service workers, and these trained employees were in turn able to guide many others to safety during the 9/11 attacks.

We have a critical opportunity to train emergency workers right now, too. We can ask what we have learned from previous crisis situations at airports, and what we can learn from last Tuesday’s events in Belgium. The Brussels attacks reveal an opportunity to rethink security in airports to include care and comfort for victims, in addition to shoring up conventional security protocols.

After an active shooter situation at Los Angeles World Airport in 2013—as it should have been with the World Trade Center twenty years prior—it was service workers who had the skills, knowledge, and experience with both passenger needs and airport protocols to guide many passengers to safety. It was, in fact, the LAX incident that prompted President Obama to sign into law the Gerardo Hernandez Airport Security Act, which requires that the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) develop security response plans to effectively respond to incidents.

However, TSA workers are not the only ones who interact with airport passengers, or who need to be prepared in times of crisis. Sky caps, customer service agents in lobbies and at ticket counters, wheelchair attendants and cart drivers, crowd control and security, baggage porters behind ticket counters, baggage handlers, cargo handlers, terminal janitors, cabin cleaners, and aircraft and catering security—all these people are present around the clock in airport terminals, and all have experience with understanding customers’ needs and guiding them through facilities and processes.

And all of these people therefore need to be prepared not only for emergencies, but also to take care of victims after an emergency has occurred. For example, the widely circulated photo of the flight attendant sitting—clearly in shock and distress—alone on a bench in the Brussels airport after the attacks last week raises some very important questions. Why is she alone? Why isn’t anyone helping her, holding her hand, talking to her?

We’ve seen after every major disaster over the last decade (including Katrina, Sandy, and the Boston Marathon Bombing) that mutual aid—people helping each other directly—is a crucial component of any response. This is why the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has adopted what it calls a “Whole Community” approach, and why the Department of Homeland Security has studied mutual aid movements like Occupy Sandy to learn how official first responders can support and work in tandem with informal, self-organized response groups.

It seems self-evident that airport workers, who are already performing critical services in a high-risk environment, should be trained and prepared to handle a crisis or emergency, and that they should be trained in protocols not only for evacuation, but also in how to care for people in shock, distressed, or confused following an incident. These staff already provide care to airport passengers, and so are in a prime position to provide emergency services, so long as they are trained in First Aid and other protocols—and so long as they are properly compensated for these additional responsibilities.

This last point is critical. America has a bad track record when it comes to assigning value to professions focused on care. As a result, those who provide services directly to customers and passengers tend to be poorly paid, with little investment made in their training or professional development.

If, instead, we were to develop and value these workers and their contributions, we could not only make ours a fairer, more caring society, we could also render ourselves better prepared not only for the next emergency, but for the chaos that will inevitably ensue thereafter. In contrast, additional security screenings, like gate checks and pat-downs, are intended to give the impression of security, but the reality remains that these measures have been proven largely ineffective.

It is up to us right now to take this opportunity— to invest in the existing service workforce, to reduce job turnover and create a sense of value for care workers, and develop a “whole community” approach to airport security. To learn from what happened in Brussels.


Greta Byrum is the director of the Resilient Communities program at New America. She reimagines the way we design, build, and manage communications systems to support local residents as leaders, organizers, and preparedness experts.