Lack of training for airport workers led to chaos during Fort Lauderdale shooting, union says

Video shows chaotic scene at baggage claim at FLL (Graphic Content)

Video shows chaotic scene at baggage claim at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, including one shooting victim.
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Video shows chaotic scene at baggage claim at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, including one shooting victim.

The chaos that engulfed Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after a shooter opened fire in a baggage terminal could have been reduced if contract workers had received better emergency training, according to a report from workers’ union SEIU 32BJ.

The union, which represents 600 of the 2,000 contract workers at FLL, on Thursday released recommendations to better prepare the airport for future emergencies, citing several failings in the airport’s response to the Jan. 6 shooting.

On that day, war veteran Esteban Santiago unloaded 14 rounds of ammunition in the Terminal 2 baggage claim area, killing five people and injuring six others. Santiago was apprehended 85 seconds after the initial shots rang out, but false reports of other shooters and victims, plus a confused response from law enforcement, thrust the airport into havoc for 12 hours.

IMG_037_FLL_Airport_DS_2_1_0DAC47VA_L285985306 (2)
Scene at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6 after a gunman shot and and wounded multiple people. Workers union SEIU 32BJ argues that better training for the airports contract workers would have contained some of the chaos after the shooting. David Santiago

Also contributing to the chaos, SEIU said in a 24-page report, was the lack of emergency training for the airport’s many contract workers, the exorbitant number of airline contractors at FLL and a high level of turnover because of low wages and few benefits.

According to a survey of 100 contractors, SEIU found that 65 percent of passenger service workers — including wheelchair attendants, security officers, ramp agents and customer service representatives — did not receive emergency training. Less than a third of respondents said they felt adequately prepared to protect themselves during an emergency; 69 percent said they had not participated in an emergency drill in the past two years.

FLL wheelchair attendant Rashad Grant said that on the day of the shooting, he was caught transferring a passenger to the Delta Sky Club when rumors of a second shooter started to ripple through FLL.

65 percent Percentage of FLL contract workers surveyed by SEIU who said they did not receive emergency training

Without any clear direction, Grant eventually started assisting wheelchair passengers, as well as a woman who was injured in the hysteria.

“It was a very chaotic day,” Grant said, adding that employees should be “trained so that we know how to protect ourselves and our passengers.”

Among the union’s recommendations for the airport are:

▪ A minimum of 40 hours initial training and eight hours of annual refreshers on emergencies and evacuations, with the training time paid in full by employers.

▪ Limiting the number of service contractors and developing a “rigorous and transparent” screening process for contractors.

▪ Increasing Broward County’s Living Wage Ordinance base rate from $12.03 per hour with benefits to $13.01 per hour, and increasing the amount paid toward healthcare from $1.56 per hour to $3.09 an hour.

Capt. LaPonda Fitchpatrick, center, speaks at a press conference held by workers union SEIU 32 BJ regarding recommendations for improving emergency protocols at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Fitchpatrick was involved in implementing safety measures at Los Angeles International Airport after 9/11. SEIU 32BJ

The union also pointed to other airports as examples of best practices. Los Angeles International Airport, for example, requires contractors to train airport workers for emergencies. Miami International Airport limits the number of airline contractors providing passenger services to five companies.

“Travelers have the expectation that airlines will keep them safe at every stage of their trip, from the moment they check in to when they land,” said retired airport police ​Capt. LaPonda Fitchpatrick, who implemented safety measures at LAX after 9/11, in a statement. “Airline passenger service personnel are in constant contact with these travelers. They should be an integral part​ of any emergency response planning.”

FLL said in a statement that it is working on an independent review of the shooting and maintains its “position that until our report is completed, we will not be addressing any other reports prepared by other entities.”

The airport has not provided a firm date for the completion of its report.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH