TSA coordination center is safety hub

By Maria José Subiria


If a suspicious passenger was to be discovered going through a security checkpoint area at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport armed with a knife, or with a knife in his luggage, Transportation Security Administration officers would report the incident to their on-site deputy manager. The manager would then make a call to personnel at the TSA's coordination center at the airport to inform them of the situation.

TSA personnel in the coordination center, including watch officers and their supervisors, would then determine which agency to send to assist the TSA officers on location handling the situation, and whether to contact the Transportation Security Operation Center, located in the Washington, D.C. area.

The Operation Center is the headquarters for all of TSA's coordination centers around the country, and the knife scenario is just one of many possible incidents that would involve the coordination center at Hartsfield-Jackson.

The TSA's coordination center at Hartsfield-Jackson is responsible for gathering, analyzing and evaluating data from a variety of sources inside and outside the airport's premises, including information from agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, the Atlanta Police Department, and various airlines, TSA officials said. The TSA's coordination center can determine what agencies to contact and whether to communicate with its headquarters, depending on the scale of the situation.

TSA officials were not allowed to share detailed information on scale levels for security purposes.

The Transportation Security Operation Center "gives the government situational awareness of what's happening [on] the ground and [in the] sky," said David Benson, manager for the coordination center at Hartsfield-Jackson. "Centers like this enable that to happen by sending information up and sending information down."

There are approximately 400 security cameras installed at the main, north and south security checkpoint areas, and in the baggage claim areas of Hartsfield-Jackson, that provide TSA watch officers a way to keep an eye on the activity at these locations, said Benson.

According to Benson, the TSA coordination center at Hartsfield-Jackson is staffed by 12 TSA watch officers, four supervisors and one manager. The coordination center is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

TSA officers at the coordination center enter information about potentially dangerous incidents, such as a passenger bringing a weapon onto the premises, into a tracking system, said Jon Allen, Southeast public affairs manager for the TSA.

"Every day people are still bringing guns, at [security] checkpoints," said Allen. "On an average day, at least one. On a typical week, at least 25."

When there is an incident that could pose a danger to Hartsfield-Jackson's passengers, the TSA's coordination center becomes a command center, receiving information and sharing information with superiors, and the appropriate agencies, said Benson.

"Sometimes we have four incidents at the same time," he added.

For Benson, the most challenging scenario for the coordination center would be admitting travelers back into Hartsfield-Jackson after an evacuation. This would require the coordination center to assign extra TSA officers to all security checkpoint areas to screen new passengers and passengers that have already gone through the process.

Mary Leftridge Byrd, federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration at Hartsfield-Jackson, said that while screenings are routine, they are a vital part of ensuring passengers' safety.

"I see screenings as maintenance medication," she said. The TSA coordination center, she said, provides "the ability to feel the pulse of the airport, and the ability to see."

Allen said TSA officers working at the coordination center need to be acutely aware and prepared for anything, including severe weather. When storms are headed toward the airport, the coordination center is responsible for contacting the National Weather Service so a determination can be made as to how to handle passenger safety, he said.

Byrd said TSA watch officers need to be adept at multi-tasking, and working under pressure.

"They have to have patience ... [and] have to be assertive to help people," Byrd said. "There's a lot of critical thinking that happens out there."