Airport Security – A Limited Focus on Larger Concerns | Spencer Coursen

Another incident was just added to an already long list of recent airport security concerns and failures.

Over the course of the past ten years I have conducted hundreds of security operations in airports throughout the United States. One thing has remained constant: Access control onto the plane has become more strict, while access into the terminal has largely remained unchanged.

Procedure only works if you follow it every time, and while most airports have a great “policy on paper” the application of that policy is often less than prescribed.  As a frequent traveler, this can is a frustrating ordeal. Despite being public facilities under government control, there is little to no uniformity from one airport to the next. While some airports are more strict than others about how long a car may wait at the curb, almost all airports allow free-reign within the terminal up to the security screening checkpoint.

I have never understood the logic of having the inner-circle of a public venue secured while the vast majority of the surrounding area was left unchecked.  If you go to the White House you are screened before you enter the building, not before entering the Oval Office. If you go to Disney World you are screened at the main gate, not at the line to ride Space Mountain.

Last year’s shooting at LAX proved this to be a fatal flaw. We must understand that a magnetometer does nothing to prevent an individual from bringing a weapon into the terminal. It simply alerts security services that someone has already done so.  Deep inside a crowded airport, this warning comes much too late to be effective.  In fact, it’s arguably much worse.

What happened when the gunman at LAX started shooting?  Everyone stormed through the screening checkpoint.  What does this tell future terrorist?  Be willing to sacrifice one member at the checkpoint, and the likelihood of getting others through increases exponentially.

For all of the technological advances available, nothing will ever have a more positive impact on safety than effective access control.

Airports already have significant protective barriers in place at each entrance. They are called doors. Doors are have one intended purpose: Access Control.

ImageAccess Control saves lives. A venue’s ability to pre-determine where an initiation of violence must first take place allows for a venue’s protective resources to be allocated where they will be most effective – at the point of entry!

For the active shooter, the violent act is of greater significance than their target. Therefore, likelihood of success is the single greatest factor in target selection. Airport terminals offer a higher likelihood of success, because most of their protective resources are employed inside the venue.  


Police won’t argue they employ a mostly reactive approach, but protection efforts require preventative measures. Working together, safety can be certain.

Of course, changing the entire construct of an airport facility takes time and money.

So how can this issue be fixed today?

For all the talk we hear about the ominous surveillance state, there is still no greater deterrent to violence than a positive personal interaction.

Have you ever been to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport? Someone greets you as soon as you exit your vehicle.

Greeters, information providers, security guards, dogs, or police posted at all entrances – not roaming – but posted at each entrance and simply saying hello to every person who enters the facility is an effective yet non-invasive approach to access control. If someone posted sees something suspicious, or identifies someone displaying characteristics of a pre-incident indicator, immediate attention can be called to the situation.  This is a much more practical application than hoping someone in a command center happens to be looking at just the right monitor, at just the right person, at just the right time.

The psychological deterrence of a simple inter-personal communication carries much more weight than the thought of “being watched” – especially when anonymity is of paramount importance to the likelihood of your success.

We must prepare today for a safer tomorrow. A practical approach to realistic threats should be our first priority.  Ensuring public safety should be our first concern.


Spencer Coursen is a nationally recognized threat management expert who has an exceptional record of success in the assessment, management, and resolution of threats, domestic and global security operations, investigations, policy authorship, and protective strategy.

Spencer Coursen | Threat Management Expert


Ranger School: Safety | Spencer Coursen

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 12.53.09 PM

Another school shooting in Oregon.  It is clear: Our schools are a soft target for deranged criminals. As the son of public school teachers, I am deeply aware of the wide base of knowledge and expertise educators possess. But while both my parents were excellent educators, they weren’t trained to escape and evade a violent threat.

That is my expertise. There are opportunities to apply lessons I have learned as a combat veteran and security professional leading protection details for dignitaries, heads of state and public figures in some of the most dangerous places in the world that would do much more to improve the safety of our schools.

Congress’ response to the Sandy Hook tragedy was to pursue legislation to ban certain types of firearms and ammunition magazines. But these bills were off the mark – even their authors admit they would not have prevented the shooting in Newtown. Instead of getting bogged down in ugly, partisan fights, there are noncontroversial actions that can be taken immediately that would actually make a make schools safer than they are today.

The best scenario, of course, is to stop an attack from happening altogether. When school is in session, there should only be one way for guests and visitors to approach, and a specific process for them to enter. A school in session should mimic a Broadway theater after the curtain has gone up: hundreds of ways for the audience to leave, but only one way to enter.

An individual who makes a public attack almost always has a specific person in mind to attack first. These offenders typically plan their action only up to the moment of initiation; they almost never plan for what will come next. This knowledge is important: if you are not the first intended victim your chance for survival is increased if you run immediately away from the sounds of the gunshots, or as soon as the threat is recognized.

Some will argue that you cannot outrun a bullet. They are correct, but who is more difficult to hit: the child running away and gaining distance with each step, or the child hiding in the coat closet?

Teachers and students are told to shelter in place during an attack. But sheltering in place was designed to protect against natural disasters, high winds, falling trees and other non-human dangers. It is an absurd idea for surviving a physical encounter. Quite simply, you cannot outrun a storm, but you can outrun a person, especially one not chasing you. I have yet to speak with a parent, whom when given a scenario similar to Sandy Hook, would rather have to identify their child than spend a few hours searching for him or her.

If fleeing is not an option, teachers and students should be able to barricade themselves in the classroom. Unfortunately, most public-funded buildings have doors that swing out. This is a norm from times when building fires were much more common than today.

But out-swinging doors cannot be barricaded – the hinges are on the wrong side. This makes any argument for staying in the classroom during an attack a losing proposition. Classrooms should have in-swinging doors that can be barricaded. In addition, classrooms should have emergency exits, similar to those on buses and airplanes. I’d even support installing an exit row airplane door with inflatable slides in classrooms above the first floor. Would this be an inexpensive option? No. Is it worth the life of a child? Yes.

For those forced to hide or barricade themselves inside a classroom, there should be a universal “survivor signal.” Something as simple as writing H (for “help”) on any window that faces out signals to emergency personnel someone is still inside.

Hard lessons learned in Mogadishu taught Army Rangers what Secret Service agents learned in Dallas; However unlikely, expect the worst will happen. School administrators, teachers and students should do the same. Instead of periodic drills, schools should conduct a walk-and-talk discussion about what to do and where to go in the event of an attack. No fake hysteria, no sirens, no alarms – just a serious conversation about what to do if an attack happens. Most of us will never experience a plane crash, but we still get a clear, calm and informative safety brief every time we board.

Parents today are more involved than ever in the lives of their children, participating in decisions about curriculum, sports, and social activities – almost everything but school safety. Parents are too often placated with the belief that “something is being done” to keep their children safe at school, but then forget to ask the follow up question of what that “something” is.

Our children deserve a safe and welcoming learning environment. Partisan politics need not get in the way of taking simple steps to ensure our children get what they deserve.


Spencer Coursen helps manage unfavorable circumstance toward favorable resolve. He is a security advisor, analyst, consultant, and strategist who is dedicated to reducing risk and preventing violence. His systems and strategies help corporations, non-profit organizations, private individuals, schools, and at-risk public figures ensure the certainty of safety for all involved.

 @SpencerCoursen / @CoursenSecurity 

3 Simple Safety Tips | Spencer Coursen

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 11.53.01 AM

Staying safe can often seem like an all or nothing investment, but these simple tips can help save you from harm, heartache and hardship. Imaginations will always be bigger than budgets, so here are a few practical applications that can help you prepare today for a safer tomorrow. 

1.  Know Where to Go

 Every home, school and workplace should have an identified “Safe Haven” – a last line of defense where you and your loved ones can safely go until help can arrive.

There is literally no limit to the amount of money one can spend on the construction such a sanctuary.  For the rest of us, we have door wedges.  These specific door wedges were designed by EMS units to keep the heavy industrial doors propped open during their rescue operations.  As good as they are at propping doors open, they are even better at wedging doors closed.  Use one of these to slow down an intruder until help can arrive.

Image               Image

2.  Who Knows Where to Find You?

In the digital age of over-sharing, sometimes it’s nice to escape and get away. Leaving your phone at home? Something as simple as leaving a note of where you’re going can help friends and loved ones find you should you go missing.  Have your phone with you? There are also several apps for your mobile device to let people know you’re in trouble or come to your rescue.


3.  When in Doubt: Run, Hide, Fight

Run, Hide, Fight is today’s Stop, Drop, Roll, and should be engrained into everyone’s mind for what to do in the face of danger.

Never risk your personal safety for personal pride.  If you feel as though you are in danger, the threat is likely real.  Trust your gut. Trust your instinct.  Run away and live to apologize later.  Fear of offending should never be greater than the fear of pain.  Learn to trust your “Gift of Fear.”

Regardless of where you are: have a plan, know where to go and know how to get there.  Identify all the exits and try not to walk into a place, you don’t know how to leave.

If caught out on the street, and unfamiliar with your surroundings: Run to a Restaurant.

Restaurants make great Safe Havens!

Restaurants have the ability to accommodate large large crowds. They are staffed by persons who know the area. They are going to have food and water. They will have a first aid kit, and working bathrooms. Have the cell towers been shut down? Restaurants have hard-lined internet and phone lines so you can still let your loved ones know you are OK.

Your personal safety requires your participation. Prepare today for a safer tomorrow, and ensure your certainty of future safety.


Spencer Coursen helps manage unfavorable circumstance toward favorable resolve. He is a security advisor, analyst, consultant, and strategist who is dedicated to reducing risk and preventing violence. His systems and strategies help corporations, non-profit organizations, private individuals, schools, and at-risk public figures ensure the certainty of safety for all involved.

 @SpencerCoursen / @CoursenSecurity 

Saving Lives with Simple Solutions | Spencer Coursen

Two incidents involving active shooters last week reached national attention.  The first at a Seattle University, the next at a courthouse in Georgia.  Poor access to mental health treatment and easy access to guns is a dangerous cross-road that too often intersects in violent end. The problems are systemic, deep-rooted, and difficult to fix overnight.  Public safety, however, can be enhanced right now.

Policing and security are often based in a reactionary approach. Protection requires preventative measures. But when these two practices work together, safety can be certain.

 Access Control, Threat Assessment, and the identification of Safe Havens are the three most important factors to safety. Access Control prevents the bad guys from ever getting inside.  Threat Assessment identifies realistic threats so they can be managed AWAY from violent outcome, and identifying Safe Havens ensures a plan: to know where to go and to know how to get there when danger strikes.

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 9.55.14 AM

 Over the course of the past few months, I have consulted on the topic of allowing courthouse employees and school administrators to carry concealed weapons. There are many factors to consider, but access control is key.  If there is a true-to-form access control policy, there should be little need for additional persons to be armed.

However, if additional persons are granted the authority to be armed there should be a very clear understanding that their ability to be armed is for personal safety, NOT the safety of the public. These individuals should not see themselves as first responders, or rush to the aid of the police. If violence should erupt, and the ability to run and hide is made available, then every effort should be taken to exhaust those options.  Only if they find themselves in the face of direct violent action should they defend their own life.

In a public setting, it’s best if only uniformed officers are carrying weapons. The unfortunate reality is many police departments don’t have adequate budgets to support concurrent training after their officers graduate the police academy. This reason above all is why the most recent FBI study on Police Involved Shootings has identified the police “hit rate” at less than 20% Think about that. For every 100 shots fired in the real world, only 20 hit their intended target.  

Add to this the induced stress of an officer who has never been in a gunfight before in his/her life.  They hear gunshots, rush into the room with weapon drawn, and see a person in civilian clothes holding a gun.  This is not a good time to play friend of foe.  In a high-stress environment, tunnel vision sets in, and the reality of that officer being able to identify a school ID or courthouse lanyard around one’s neck, under a coat, or concealed by a tie is very low on the probability scale.

When it comes to personal safety, the presence of an armed contingency at a public facility only provides a determination for where the initiation of violence will first take place. To the committed offender, an armed response is not a deterrent. It is simply one more factor to consider in their attack plan.

Therefore, a realistic, vetted, and strict-adherence-to-procedure Access Control Policy is sufficient for the safeguarding of persons inside. It defines where the initiation of violence will first take place, and allows the security team to focus their resources on the point of greatest vulnerability.


Spencer Coursen helps manage unfavorable circumstance toward favorable resolve. He is a security advisor, analyst, consultant, and strategist who is dedicated to reducing risk and preventing violence. His systems and strategies help corporations, non-profit organizations, private individuals, schools, and at-risk public figures ensure the certainty of safety for all involved.

 @SpencerCoursen / @CoursenSecurity