LAX shooting response criticized in report

LAX shooting
Security outside Terminal 2 at LAX after a Transportation Security Administration agent was killed. The report credited a swift-thinking airport worker for using his cellphone to report details on the shooting to airport police.
(Al Seib, Los Angeles Times)

The emergency response to November’s deadly shooting at Los Angeles International Airport was hampered by poor communications and a lack of coordination between agencies, problems that contributed to a chaotic evacuation and delays reaching victims, officials said Tuesday.

A new report on the shooting found that firefighters and paramedics had difficulty determining where to go. There was a delay in setting up a unified emergency command center. Thousands of passengers spilled onto secure airport ramps where planes were parked or fled onto nearby streets, many lugging their bags along Sepulveda, Lincoln and Century boulevards. Ground transportation in and around the airport came to a halt for hours.

“The biggest failure was the lack of communication,” Mayor Eric Garcetti told an LAX news conference after the report was released. “People were with no information by and large for too many hours and that was unacceptable.”

Public safety agencies and airport officials have already proposed improvements to address the problems, including better radio equipment, ensuring emergency phones in terminals work, improved public address systems, and more training and special teams to help stranded passengers.


Brian Jenkins, an expert in terrorism and aviation security at Rand Corp., the Santa Monica-based think tank, said poor communications were a recurring problem in major emergencies like the LAX shooting — one that the federal government was trying to address. “This occurs regularly in after-action reports,” Jenkins said.

The assessment, compiled by consulting firms hired by the airport department, credited a swift-thinking airport worker for using his cellphone to report details of the shooting to airport police as well as officers from the agency for responding rapidly and limiting the carnage.

“LAX officers responded expertly and heroically, and saved lives, stopping the shooter with 100 unused rounds in just a few short minutes,” Garcetti said. “But we also got lucky this shooting didn’t take more lives.”

The gunman, identified by authorities as Paul Anthony Ciancia, 23, entered Terminal 3 about 9:20 a.m. with an assault-style rifle and allegedly began searching for federal Transportation Security Administration screeners. The report says Ciancia was wounded and captured in about five minutes.


Killed in the assault was Gerardo Hernandez, 39, of Los Angeles, the nation’s first TSA officer to die in the line of duty. A teacher and two other TSA officers, James Speer and Tony Grigsby, were injured.

The report, overseen by the consulting firms of ICF International and Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc., evaluated the performance of public safety agencies and the emergency management team of Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX, the nation’s third-busiest airport.

When Los Angeles police and firefighters arrived, they had difficulty communicating by radio with airport police because each agency uses different frequencies, the report found. Without knowing where the staging area for first responders was located, each agency established its own. It took 45 minutes to set up a unified command center outside Terminal 3, the report says.

That location became a problem, the report said, because of large numbers of passengers and officials near the building. Nine hours after the shooting, officials relocated the command center to the closest fire station at Manchester Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard.

“This report is an embarrassment,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes LAX. “Los Angeles World Airports spends $125 million on security every year. With this level of investment, LAX should have a state-of-the-art emergency response system.”

Since the Nov. 1 shooting, airport officials and public safety agencies have begun work on a series of enhancements to emergency response plans and the airport’s communications systems.

The suggestions are “a template for continuing evolution at LAX,” said Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports. “Our learning will be a catalyst for change at other airports all over the world.”

High among the priorities is the creation of tactical medical technicians who will be trained to enter areas where an active shooter may still be at large to quickly care for victims and evacuate them. Traditionally, paramedics entered shooting scenes only after law enforcement officials declared the area secure.


Hernandez — who was hit by 12 rounds — was not reached by paramedics until 33 minutes after the shooting began. But an autopsy concluded that he died two to five minutes after being shot.

The other measures include creation of a special team of 300 airport officials to assist stranded passengers, and a new wireless communication system that would send information to cellphones during emergencies.

Also proposed are distribution points for food and water, more message boards for emergency information and more assistance for people with disabilities.

Emergency phones and panic buttons in the terminals will be checked daily to ensure that they are working, the report said. An emergency phone and two of 12 panic buttons in Terminal 3 were not working on the day of the shooting, officials have said.

Some LAX passengers expressed frustration Tuesday that such procedures weren’t followed before.

“They make us stand in line. They make us take our shoes off. They make 80-year-olds get patted down in public,” said Linda Rathfelder of Santa Monica. “You’d think they could maintain all the other things that keep us safe.”

Airport officials said they planned to increase training and drills for airport law enforcement and for airport workers, who have complained that they have received little instruction on how to evacuate terminals and handle emergencies. Many of them work for private companies that provide security workers, janitors, wheelchair assistants and baggage handlers to airlines.

The report criticized California’s 911 system, which in some airport areas connects cellphone callers to the California Highway Patrol instead of police, causing some delay in receiving emergency calls. Garcetti said he planned to push changes in dispatch procedures so that cellphone callers were connected to the closest law enforcement agency.


Although the report did not address it, one policy decision highlighted after the shooting was the earlier reassignment of police officers to roving patrols instead of guarding TSA passenger screening areas.

Critics have said the change reduced deterrence and made terminals more vulnerable to attack.

Los Angeles Airport Police Chief Patrick Gannon defended the change Tuesday, saying that security staffing needed to be flexible and unpredictable. He noted that “incidents can come at checkpoints. They can come on runways. They can come at curbside.”