At the Frontline: Miami International Airport Security Director Lauren Stover

Airport security has become one of the most intensely debated topics in American culture. Since the federal government took charge of the responsibility through the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, there have been numerous security measures put into place to make air travel safer. Of course many of these measures – the use of body scanners, removing shoes and limiting what passengers can pack in their carry-on bags – has drawn the ire of the flying public and even lawmakers.

However, most Americans have never seen the inner workings of airport security, which includes numerous moving parts and coordination between various law enforcement agencies working to keep passengers safe. Lauren Stover, assistant aviation director for public safety, security
and communications at Miami International Airport (MIA), is changing that by taking part in the Travel Channel’s hit new show "Airport 24/7: Miami," which provides viewers with a behind-the-scenes look at how one the nation’s largest and busiest airports tackles security challenges on a daily basis. Click here to see a sneak peak of the show.

In this "At the Frontline" interview, Stover discusses her background in the industry, why she decided to take part in the show and what the biggest misconceptions are about airport security.

SIW: How did you get your start in security?

Stover: I got my background in security by joining the Transportation Security Administration after the 9/11 attacks. And at that time, I felt like I wanted to help our nation so I left Miami airport and joined the TSA to setup a communications division for their southeast region and one week later, the Department of Homeland Security was formed. I was tapped to head up communications at DHS for its southeastern region – working closely with CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection), ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), Secret Service, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), the Coast Guard, Caribbean attaché, and the Federal Protective Service.

I would get tons of calls and be grilled with questions on these programs, which were sensitive security information and I had to turn around and speak intelligently on all these new initiatives that were being rolled out, literally on a daily basis and that’s how I got submersed into what was happening with our national security and aviation security. I don’t have a law enforcement background.

When I was offered the job to come here to Miami International Airport, at the time, the security director had retired and the communications director had left so there were two openings and the airport director wanted me to assume both roles. And I just couldn’t believe it, I said this is crazy. These are two diametrically opposing disciplines that had naturally conflicting agendas and I would essentially have to keep secrets from myself. I didn’t unpack my boxes in my office for two months. I wasn’t sure I was the right person for the job and it turned out all of the agencies accepted me here and I started bringing our agencies together. This job is bigger than one person and it’s because of the partnerships that we have here at this airport that we are all joined together for one mission. We are one team, one fight and because of that we’re doing bigger and better things together in security. One example, CBP traditionally doesn’t train locally with its local police department on tactics. Here at Miami airport, CBP and our Miami-Dade Police Department train regularly on various types of exercises based on threat scenarios.

SIW: Being that airport security has traditionally been a subject that’s rarely spoken about, much less filmed, what were your initial thoughts when you were approached about doing a TV show on the subject?

Stover: Conflicting. My security mind and my security hat said no way; I would not support this project. But my communications hat, being that I have 30 years of experience working with news media, I felt like this was an important project based on the executive producers that approached us and their background. We completely vetted their background. I felt this was the right company for us to partner with to tell our story and to give people an opportunity to see what it’s like to run a major international airport. Most security directors, understandably so, at our nation’s airports would not support a project such as this. I felt that we could tell this story and more importantly, we can show the public how serious we are about security. And for us, that’s nothing we think we need to keep a secret. We don’t expose any sensitive security information or give away family secrets here, but we do let the public see what we do in terms of how prepared we are and what we do every day without giving away too much. That’s why we did this program, hopefully to deter anyone will ill intentions from coming out here to carry out their acts.

SIW: What’s it been like for you doing the show? Do people recognize you in public and what kind of feedback have you received from it?

Stover: For me, I’ve just been like everybody else and now I’ve been kind of put out there for people to see and I’m not accustomed to this type exposure. Quite truthfully, I’ve always been one to be behind the scenes and that’s just my nature. Even though I’ve been in charge of the media at Miami airport, I don’t go on television. You rarely see me on TV when my people are doing television interviews on the various things that happen here at MIA and we get tons of media inquiries and opportunities to be quoted or have our pictures taken or be in the broadcast media, but I just have always shied from it until this project. And now I’m getting a lot more emails from people that are first complementary towards the program and then they roll into needing help with something. They travel through MIA and something happened and they didn’t know who to contact, but now that they saw me on television, can I help them? Can I help them with a job? Can I help them find this or that? And I do, I still respond to my emails and I’m just a county employee here.

SIW: What are some of the biggest challenges you face as security manager for an airport the size of MIA?

Stover: The biggest challenge is we don’t have a crystal ball to tell us when might be the next attack, who would carry it out, when, how many are involved, and will there be any secondary incidents. That’s critical information that we could use to tell us really what’s going on in the world of threats against our airport or any of our U.S. airports. As a security director, the biggest challenge is we just don’t know what’s going to happen next and therefore we have to be forward-leaning with countermeasures to put in place to any potential threats that may or may not arise. And for us, we have to take into consideration our countermeasures for vehicle borne improvised explosive devices, possible suicide bombers, active shooters, an unruly passenger, and then we have criminal activities we have to be mindful of.

The biggest challenge here is our greatest strength and that is interagency cooperation, partnership and collaboration, working hand-in-hand in order to address the potential threats and put countermeasures in place to harden our infrastructure. An airport of this size, with this many people, unless you have a security officer posted every square-foot of this terminal building and in the airfield and cargo areas, it’s reliant upon all of the employees out there to remain vigilant, which is why we train employees in behavioral detection methodologies. We are the first U.S. airport to mandate that all airport workers take at least a one-hour course on behavioral detection because we’re big on the study of human behavior. That to us is a key indicator of someone’s intention. I know we have technology and technology is important, but technology comes and goes, however, the ability to detect anomalies in human behavior will never grow obsolete.

SIW: Aside from terrorism, what are some of the biggest security risks that you have protect against at an airport?

Stover: The insider threat. Potential criminal activities occurring by employees that work at the airport. We have to be aware of chemical, biological and radiological threats. There is domestic terrorism, the lone wolf and homegrown violent extremists. There are all kinds of bad people out there that want to do bad things. We have to evaluate what’s the threat? What’s our vulnerability against that threat and what’s a consequence for not taking action? Basically, we operate with a risk model. The risk model is associating any particular risk as a high risk or a low risk and in order for us to determine whether it’s a low risk or a high risk, we put it in that formula.

SIW: What do you believe is the biggest misconception about airport security?

Stover: That we’re no better off since 9/11. That just drives me crazy when I hear somebody say that. It is the most ignorant statement that I think I’ve heard in aviation security. All of the law enforcement, regulatory agencies, airports and their security staff and operations staff are working very hard since 9/11 and I don’t believe we’re just lucky, I believe that the things we’re doing as a nation to defend our airports against acts of terror is because we have layers and layers of security that never existed prior to 9/11. People that are complacent don’t understand the terrorist mind frame. Many people think retaliatory acts usually take place immediately after an incident. In the mind of a terrorist, they’ll take decades for that right opportunity to retaliate and we have to be mindful of that. One of the biggest challenges I face as a security manager is dealing with an adversary that’s willing to commit suicide for their radical religious beliefs, not an even playing field.

SIW: Most of the news we see about airport security is usually negative, what do you think needs to be done to improve the image of security at airports around the nation?

Stover: I believe that airports and governmental agencies need to be more proactive about what they’re doing in security rather than reacting to stories because of theft or criminal activity that an airport worker was engaged in. I believe we should get ahead of these messages. The public should know what we’re doing overall in the arena of security and aviation security, rather than waiting for stories to break that are embarrassing and don’t give the full picture. For example, the screeners that are being arrested. Most people would think that’s terrible, well, you know, we hire from the human race so bad things do happen, there are rotten apples out there that are not representative of the agency’s mission overall. What it tells me is that airports that have been in the limelight because of dishonest screeners are actually doing something about the problem. This is the good news.

SIW: What do you want the biggest takeaway to be for people who watch the show?

Stover: We want people to see the human side of MIA. We’re not looking to change peoples’ opinions, just give them an educated one and we want people to know what it’s like running a major international airport – that one thing, one delay, one cancellation can cause a cascading effect across the entire operation and even the aviation system.

 

 

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