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3 tips to identify, protect soft targets

The mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale Airport is an important reminder to conduct and update threat assessments of soft targets in every jurisdiction


Law enforcement personnel are shown outside a garage area at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport, Friday, Jan. 6, 2017, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after a shooter opened fire inside a terminal of the airport, killing several people and wounding others before being taken into custody.

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

News about the mass casualty shooting at Fort Lauderdale International Airport is still breaking. We know of five dead and eight injured, the event happened at the Terminal 2 baggage claim and police and allied first responders are on scene. Public transportation — whether it’s metro rails, trains or airports — continue to be soft targets for terrorists and lone actors. In every city, there are multiple soft targets, and in order to fully understand the vulnerabilities of these areas, police departments need to continually assess them and document the threat assessment in order to understand their level of risk.

Here are three things to consider in identifying soft targets and updating threat assessments in your jurisdiction.

1.Identify vulnerable soft targets

Police departments must regularly identify vulnerable soft targets within their jurisdiction and share these vulnerable areas with key city personnel. Use a database to store and maintain details about the area, including location, two to three points of contact for that location, date of the most recent assessment, date of the next assessment and related emergency response plan.

Based on the horrific incident at the Ft. Lauderdale International Airport, all police departments should declare baggage claim areas at airports as soft targets. Other soft targets include shopping centers, movie theaters, schools, universities, hotels, hospitals, places of worship or other areas of large assembly.

2.Vulnerability/risk assessments

Vulnerability/risk assessments, which rank or categorize vulnerabilities, are common in technology and critical infrastructure. Police departments can apply the same criteria and fundamentals in ranking the vulnerability of any soft target within their jurisdiction. The general concept is to identify the target, identifying possible threats that can occur and create a response plan. Once the soft targets are identified, there must be a routine assessment done to understand current vulnerabilities. If new security or access control systems are in place, then those should be documented. If a university grows from 20,000 students to 30,000 students, that information should be documented. Or if a university receives national media attention for refusing to fly the U.S. flag on campus and there is resulting public outrage, the vulnerability assessment needs to be updated.

3.Heighten situational awareness at soft targets

Areas identified as soft target should have measures in place to heighten situational awareness. This may include posters about a number to dial if you see suspicious activity, overhead announcements (the See Something, Say Something announcement is commonly heard in government transit locations) or an increased presence of security or law enforcement patrolling the area. Law enforcement needs to share information with the community about what to do if an incident occurs in that area, how to respond to a mass murderer with “Move, Escape, Attack,” and make bleeding control kits with tourniquets as ubiquitous as AEDs

Given the dynamic and evolving threats we continue to see, it is critical for law enforcement to evolve its operations to mitigate the risks of an attack.

Heather Cotter serves as the Executive Director of the International Public Safety Association, a 501(c)3 non-profit. She’s been working with public safety professionals for several years and understands the challenges agencies and resource constraints agencies continue to face. Heather has a Master’s degree from Arizona State University and a Bachelor’s at Indiana University, both in Criminology. Contact her at