AP Exclusive: Phone system failed in LA shooting

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Associated Press

Posted on February 27, 2014 at 2:36 AM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Los Angeles International Airport police dispatcher who received a call seconds after a gunman opened fire in a terminal last year didn't know where to send officers because 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 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 the 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.

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.

The attack killed U.S. Transportation Security Administration Officer Gerardo Hernandez and injured two other TSA officers and a passenger. Paul Ciancia, 24, is accused of targeting TSA officers. He has pleaded not guilty to 11 federal charges, including murder of a federal officer.

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 investigation into the emergency response, 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 that gives 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.

— Anyone making an emergency call 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.

TSA Officer Victor Payes, who has worked at the airport 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.

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.

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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