Task Force: Lack of Communication and Personnel Training Contributed to Panicked Evacuation of JFK in August

John F. Kennedy International Airport from the air

By Paul Riegler on 22 November 2016
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A joint task force that reviewed panicked evacuations of several terminals following false reports of shots being fired at John F. Kennedy International Airport in August said Monday that poor communication, a lack of training, and poor interagency coordination were the primary contributors.

On the night of August 14, a wave of panic spread across JFK starting at Terminal 8, which was evacuated by passengers acting on their own at 9:30 p.m. local time, to Terminal 1, which was evacuated in a similar fashion some 45 minutes later. Terminal 2 was also evacuated.

FBT Editorial Director Jonathan Spira was at JFK when the panic started.

“I had just arrived at Terminal 1 and saw several groups of people moving very quickly as if they were late for a flight,“ said Mr. Spira. “Moments later, the flood gates burst and hundreds of people came running out.”

Raucous noise from people watching the victory of Usain Bolt, the Jamaican track star, was apparently mistaken for gunfire, the Port Authority said.

During the incident, there were reports of TSA agents panicking over a non-existent bomb and a non-existent shooting victim.

The investigation, conducted jointly by New York State and federal officials, found airport officials and police severely ill-prepared for the events that took place and noted the poor inter-agency coordination and widely divergent levels of training for security personnel as significant contributors to the mass panic. In a six-page letter released by Governor Andrew Cuomo, officials outlined an account of what took place and what concerns were raised.

The incident revealed a lack of coordination between federal and local agencies including the New York Police Department, Transportation Security Administration, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport.

Absent any direction from authorities, passengers took it upon themselves to flee the terminal or hide from the presumed threat. The events of that evening also raised concerns about what would have transpired had it not been a false alarm. The fact that no one was injured despite the uncontrolled nature of the evacuations was, however, worthy of note.

“In this case, although thousands of people participated in an uncontrolled immediate evacuation, there were no significant injuries,” said the John F. Kennedy International Airport Multi-Agency Security Review Team in its report to the governor and to Jeh Johnson, the nation’s secretary of Homeland Security. “However, the danger posed by a panicked mass of people fleeing for their lives cannot be overstated.”

On Monday, Messrs. Cuomo and Johnson said in separate statements they plan to implement the task force’s recommendations, including the creation of a single unified command center that will oversee airport security.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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