Lessons from the John F. Kennedy International Airport Stampede

jfk stampedeOn August 14, 2016, New York City’s JFK Airport was engulfed with mass hysteria and random human stampedes for a period of several hours.  This erratic behavior was the result of multiple 911 calls and reports of an active shooter.  Here’s a riveting eyewitness account and some relevant video.

Despite the overwhelming tactical response, it would later be ascertained that no such shooter ever existed.  In reality, what transpired was a textbook example of an “artificially generated stampede.”  It’s kind of like a synthetically manufactured panic resulting in a reverse flash mob.

Turns out it was all an illusion based on “rapid disinformation” combined with “contagious misperceptions.”  You see, there was a shooter.  Just not inside the airport.  The gunfire came from 4,818 miles away.  It came from a different time zone on a different continent.  This particular lone shot was fired in Rio De Janiero at Maracana Stadium.

Picture the following scenario:

At JFK airport, or any airport for that matter, there are a slew of television screens.  On that fateful evening, virtually all of them were tuned to the Olympics on NBC.  Everyone wanted to watch the 100 meter dash and learn who’d become the fastest man on the planet.  This race is one of the biggest spectacles in sports history.  Right up there with the World Cup and the Superbowl.  But it unfolds in a matter of seconds.  So naturally, there’s a lot of excitement and an extreme level of heightened anticipation.

A foreboding silence pervades the crowd.  Followed by the word ‘set’ over the public address.  And then a single gunshot is fired in the air.  That same gunshot is simultaneously heard on every continent, in every country, and in every city.  Homes and offices.  Bars and restaurants.  Relayed on live television and radio.  And over the past 2 decades, a new communication medium has emerged.  It’s called the internet.  Try to think beyond the computer in your office cubicle.  Nowadays, there’s plenty of streaming video on all those smart phones as well.  Everyone is tuned in… and tuned up.

So the gunshot is fired and the runners take off.  They literally bolt at lightning pace.  Now let’s add an extra wildcard into the mix — Justin Gatlin, a sprinter hailing from Brooklyn, New York.  His birthplace is less than 10 miles from JFK Airport.  He’s not only a hometown hero, he’s also considered the only credible competitor to Usain Bolt.

Bolt would secure the gold medal in 9.81 seconds.  Gatlin placed a close second in 9.89 seconds and took home the silver.  But the drama was far from over.  There’s a reason they refer to it as the “thrill of victory” and the “agony of defeat.”

The conflagration of these seemingly random variables would ignite an emotional spark.  And that spark led to mass pandemonium in Terminal 8 at JFK International.  Because in a normally subdued environment, the reverberations of one gun shot, followed by the authentic shrieks and miscellaneous screams of viewers bouncing off the walls in a hollow airport corridor would be construed as something entirely different.  The cacophony would be misinterpreted for the presence of an active shooter.  An act of terror.

I’m not going to try and recapture the essence of the chaos.  If you wish to explore what happened, there are plenty of articles and blogs.  Just perform a google search.  However, I am going to make a fairly obvious observation.  We live in an increasingly hyper-connective world.  Wireless capacity and technological efficiency are on the upswing.   Deceptive information can be relayed in an instant and have real-world consequences.

So what’s the takeaway?  Well, if you ask me, it’s fairly obvious.

No.  Contingency.  Plan.

The incident command structure never conceived of how “outlying scenarios” and “unanticipated variables” might impact on the ground conditions.  They never speculated about a potential sequence of events.  They never engaged in out-of-the-box thinking.  They never role played or postulated about a hypothetical attack vector.  Sound familiar?  Well, it should.  Two words: nine eleven.

Here’s something else to consider regarding the incident at JFK.  There may have been a negative outcome, but there were no nefarious actors.  There was no malicious intent.  Things just seemingly spiraled out of control, from terminal to terminal and beyond.

Please forgive me while I aggressively pivot to an undiscussable, asymmetric cyber-security threat.  Humanity is in the early stages of witnessing an emerging phenomenon — the prospect of the modern, technological equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.  This might surprise you, but there were three other stampedes that same day.

Fireworks explosion in Staten Island mall leads to customer stampede

Possible gunfire forces lockdown at Raleigh, N.C., Crabtree Mall

France on edge: Stampede injures dozens at Mediterranean resort after ‘gun shots’ spark terror fears

These stampedes had one thing in common.  They all made the daily news cycle and then were quickly forgotten.

So in summation, can we learn anything concrete?  I believe the answer to be a resounding yes.  After all, there’s a lot of concrete in NFL stadiums.  And by the way, concrete itself, can be rather unforgiving.

The mishap at JFK mirrors a fundamental security disconnect with the National Football League.  Individual NFL incident commanders are focused exclusively on their own stadiums.  I’ve witnessed this first hand — a deep resentment and obstinate unwillingness to think beyond the physical confines of their respective venues.

Hell, they won’t even divulge the bare minimum amount of public safety info… that they would NEVER order an evacuation via personal cell phones.  Not to sound condescending, but this is information that most people have never considered.  Why not make it available?  It wouldn’t cost a penny.  You just loop a 3 second message as fans enter the stadium — Please be advised, it is not the policy of (fill in the blank stadium) to order an emergency evac via your personal cell phone or mobile device.

Much like we saw panic spread form terminal to terminal, I think it’s highly conceivable to picture that same degree of panic spreading from stadium to stadium.  Consider the live television aspect and try to focus, not on one individual game, but on the totality of all games being played simultaneously.  The whole is always bigger than the sum of its parts.  Real-world events can have real-world consequences.

Many people reporting on the JFK stampedes, termed it a “domino” effect.  Well, not to sound smug, but there’s a reason I devised the term “dominipede” several years ago.

Domino + Stampede = Dominipede

They also labeled it a “cascade” effect.  I once even joked about the word “cascadium.”  All joking aside, the material on the AGSAF website is based on common sense risk assessment with a long-term event horizon.  I ask you one simple question.  Could something like this be attempted?  If your answer is yes, then what’s the contingency plan?  Oops.  I nearly forgot.  No such game plan exists.

Except this is not a game and there isn’t a plan.

A heavy concentration of mobile devices + an intentionally centralized or unintentionally decentralized cellular saturation of false information = a potentially catastrophic black swan event, a/k/a — a “dominipede.”

Unfamiliar with the term black swan?  Google it.

Unfamiliar with the term dominipede?  Google it.