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‘False alarms’ at LAX and JFK show heightened airport anxiety

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SALT LAKE CITY — Twice this month, major American airports experienced chaos and emergency shutdowns in the wake of alarms sounded by travelers who mistook “loud noises” for potential terror threats.

Though neither incident turned out to be legitimate threats, they reveal the increased sensitivity that has become pervasive among air travelers nationwide. And it has officials at Salt Lake City International Airport reiterating the need for all travelers to be alert, even as airport security prepares for active-shooter situations.

“Everybody has to be vigilant in this era because we now know the situation that we’re in globally,” said Phidelima Umeyor, a British citizen who flew into Salt Lake City International Airport Monday on a visit from her native England. “I’d rather we were overreacting than underreacting because unfortunately the worst can happen if we don’t.”

She described it as a “necessary evil.”

“If we don’t (remain vigilant), we jeopardize not only ourselves but many other people as well,” she said.

On Sunday, panic erupted at Los Angeles International Airport following reports of an “active shooter” situation at the facility. Officials blamed loud noises as the impetus for the widespread fear that temporarily gripped passengers and personnel at the airport. Reports quickly spread to social media, several terminals were evacuated, and some people even ran onto the tarmac. The incident caused delays and fear among travelers, but police later confirmed there was no danger.

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that officials at John F. Kennedy International Airport said an elaborate hoax was perpetuated there, prompting similar panic. The report of a shooter at JFK was also eventually regarded as false.

Craig Vargo, chief of airport police, said his department has conducted active shooter training for more than a decade to respond to any threat.

“You have to vigilant and ready to respond,” he said. “We are trying to teach the public about Run-Hide-Flight.”

The cty of Houston and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security created a six-minute video to serve as a national protocol on what to do when an armed shooter enters a public space or private business with the intent to kill. Run, or escape if possible. If not possible, hide. And as a last result, fight.

He said people may overreact sometimes, but doing so is better than allowing a threat to pass without notifying an airport official or the police.

“You have to be prepared to do what you have to do to get you and your family to safety,” Vargo said. “Be aware of your surroundings, and if you see something happening, take a second to assess the situation before you say anything (that might spark alarm).”

Instead, contact the airport police using any of the white telephones posted throughout the facility, he said.

Fabienne Hellebaut, an international traveler from France, said she has never had to deal with a potential terror threat, but if there was an alarm, “I think I would run as fast as I can.”

She also said every individual has a duty to “act in a responsible manner” and report any threats to authorities.

She said that terrorism is still something relatively new in Western culture that others around the world have been dealing with for decades.

“There are countries in the world that have lived this way for years, and that it is happening to us now, a little bit, one after another,” Hellebaut said. “We are not used to living with this type of problem.“

Dallas native Zach Gianola calls the hypersensitivity of travelers “an actuality of society” today.

“Being overly sensitive will ultimately keep us safer,” he said. “We just have to understand that if we’re going to make an allegation (of a terror threat), we have to be aware of what is behind it.”

E-mail: jlee@deseretnews.com

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