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Internal report exposes critical safety and security flaws at Reagan, Dulles airports

Internal report exposes critical safety and security flaws at Reagan, Dulles airports (ABC7)

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) ignored critical internal safety and security recommendations, putting travelers and airport employees in critical danger, according to a report recently obtained exclusively by ABC7.

The documents, written by MWAA internal safety expert Dan Brown surfaced days after a 12-year-old girl went missing from Reagan National Airport, sparking debate about why surveillance cameras only captured blurry face and license plate pictures.

The documents, presented internally in 2017 and 2018 show officials were warned about numerous security and safety issues at both Reagan and Dulles Airports.

The reports detail possible injury or death to travelers and airport employees if changes weren’t made. MWAA officials were also warned that inaction exposed Reagan and Dulles airports to homeland security vulnerabilities. The major concerns centered around what is described as MWAA’s outdated computer aided dispatch system (CAD), non-existent video analytic systems that detect suspicious stagnant objects and people, and its outdated mobile license plate readers designed for detecting wanted vehicles, which are detected by parked or moving police cruisers, none of which has been replaced.

“Failure to implement the recommended solution will increase the risk related to passenger safety, safety of field personnel, homeland security targeting of airport facilities and response times associated with critical incidents and natural disasters,” the September 2017 report stated in regard to the authority’s computer aided dispatch system.

According to the 2017 report, parts of Reagan and Dulles’ combined computer aided dispatch system (CAD), failed more than 1,700 times between March 2015 and September 2017. The outages lasted from 30 minutes to three hours. It was recommended MWAA replace the system which has not been updated since 2010, is past its end-of-life, and costs $335,520 a year to keep afloat.

“The service which performs queries from CAD on wanted persons, stolen property and missing persons often experiences an outage 2-3 times a week. The outage is resolved with a reset of the networked service, however; without correcting the existing coding, instability of the interface will continue to result in unexpected outages. This could potentially prevent law enforcement from being notified that an individual which officers have made contact with is reported nationally as wanted, missing, or part of a watch list,” the report says.

The report also lays out the operational risk of the existing public safety system, including “increased risk of officer injury, increased liability resulting from poor emergency response times attributed to a preventable incapacity or death,” and “vulnerable threats against homeland security.”

Furthermore, a March 2018 audit found emergency response times at Reagan and Dulles Airports failed to meet national standards in 100 percent of 911 calls audited from November 2017 to January 2018. The average response time was one minute and six seconds higher than The National Fire Protection Associations standard of four minutes. The result places MWAA at risk for civil liability, the audit stated.

MWAA’s Fire Station Alerting System (FSAS) failed four times in 2017 and forces dispatchers to count in their heads before giving verbal information to first responders, that puts travelers and employees at risk, according to the report.

“Supervisors from the PSCC [Public Safety Communications Center] stated that as a rule of thumb, dispatchers count to 15 in their head after dropping tones before making an audible announcement so that the station receives the audible tone and the dispatcher’s verbal announcement. The manual process completed by the dispatcher diverts his/her attention away from the rapidly evolving emergency and increases the risk & liability involved with overlooking incident details impacting the safety of first responders and civilians,” the report said.

This 65-page report came to light days after 12-year-old Jinjing Ma disappeared from Reagan Airport’s B/C terminal sparking a national manhunt and Amber Alert. MWAA police officials released blurry surveillance photos making it impossible to see a license plate or the supposed abductor’s face. The disappearance tied up more than seven state and federal law enforcement agency resources from Virginia to New York and west to California for more than 30 hours. FBI officials were later discovered with the child with her parents in Queens, New York.

In 2017, MWAA’s internal safety expert Dan Brown suggested in his report mobile license plate readers (ALPR) at both Dulles and Reagan were obsolete. Neither airport had fixed-based license plate readers which would monitor each vehicle entering both airports, such a tool that might have assisted in quickly identifying the white infinity SUV Jinjing Ma entered on August 2nd.

“The solution recommends a fixed ALPR system to constantly monitor sensitive areas including all entrances to Dulles International & Reagan National airports,” Brown wrote in 2017. A spokesperson for the airport confirms no such system exists today.

Brown also recommends Domain Awareness technology, a video analytics system used to alert authorities of unusual stagnate objects and crowd formations.

The report highlights a 2017 situation where an MWAA police officer was critically injured in a remote part of a Dulles Airport garage and not discovered unconscious for ten minutes. The report say obsolete license plate readers couldn’t provide a clear picture of the license plate of a car that left the scene. It took 20 minutes for an ambulance to transport the officer, who was left in the intensive care unit. MWAA would not discuss the officer's recovery or additional details of this case.

“Technology recommended through the Modernization (ITM) Program solution would have made a profound difference in investigating the incident. First, ALPRS technology positioned at airport entrances would have captured the license plate of the fleeing vehicle. Second, Domain Awareness technology would have perceived the officers stagnant body as observed suspicious activity and therefor triggered an alert. Medical attention would have been rendered faster, perhaps benefiting the officer’s recovery,” Brown explained in the report. MWAA does not operate fixed-based license plate readers.

ABC7 reached out to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for an on-camera interview to address these concerns. Our request was declined, but Christina Saull, MWAA Communications Manager, issued this statement:

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority operates an extensive and robust network of cameras and other security systems throughout its airports. These systems are routinely used by Airport Operations, Airport Police, TSA and other entities to address law-enforcement and security needs. MWAA is always investing in upgrades of its security and emergency response systems to adapt to rapidly changing technologies. These cameras and supporting security systems, which operate 24 hours a day, were instrumental in providing video and other data used in locating the child reported missing at Reagan National on Aug. 2. The systems were operational and working properly at that time.

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