Are you safe when you fly? Cleveland Hopkins Airport, FBI answer that question with exclusive tour

CLEVELAND - Every time we catch a flight, we may not be thinking about safety and security, but we’re all still thinking about safety and security.

How do airports ensure our safety? That’s the question the Cleveland FBI set out to answer, when it gave members of the Citizens’ Academy the chance to see the inner workings of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

Fred Szabo is the commissioner at Hopkins. What kind of background does that position require? Szabo has been in law enforcement for 40 years.

Szabo said, even before 9/11, a good relationship with airports has always been important to the FBI. In fact, the FBI has a constant presence at Hopkins.

"There’s always something that happens everyday here that interests us,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Michael Paul, who specializes in domestic terror investigation.

Hopkins is the 36th largest out of 436 airports. Its runway has the equivalent of 200 miles of a two-lane highway, with 9.5 million annual passengers. In fact, it expects several more visits from Air Force One before the November election.

It’s a major airport, so it needs a comparable amount of security precautions. On a daily basis, Hopkins has more than 800 security personnel in the terminal and on the tarmac.

Once you buy your ticket, security procedures go into effect. That includes federal intelligence on passengers, the no-fly list, TSA passenger and bag screening, flight deck security and US Air Marshals.

But one of the most effective tactics to spot threats is the behavior detection program. In the terminal, security personnel are looking for behaviors and activity that deviate from the norm, especially when passengers show stress, fear or deception.

One agent said, "Before they get on that plane, we need to make sure that person poses no threat."

Szabo said the most significant threats to airports are insider threats: someone who works at the airport, has a badge to move about the airport, and plans to exploit that privilege to harm others.

Now it was time for the tour. Members of the Citizens' Academy stepped into airport shuttles and we rode out onto the tarmac, to one of the airport’s utility buildings.

This tour was quite a rare treat. It’s hard to remember the last time I stepped onto a major airport’s tarmac, let alone walk around freely.

Hopkins shared with us some of its equipment to mitigate disasters. All airports know that sometimes disasters happen. If a plane has a fire or an explosion on the runway, the airport has a piece of equipment built just for that event.

It's called the Stryker, and we saw it up close. This emergency vehicle could most closely be compared to a fire truck, but it’s much different. It is bright neon green, as opposed to red. It is built to literally drive straight into burning wreckage. It has several water turrets that can shoot large amounts of water or foam at a fast rate in an effort to douse a blaze.

Hopkins must also contend with the weather. Anyone who lives in Northeast Ohio – or at least, flew into Cleveland at winter – knows how brutal our snowfall can be. The airport has a fleet of powerful plows with massive blades that can clean snow from a 9,000 foot runway in 16 minutes.

Our tour took us into a 737. I stepped into the cockpit and made three observations: it was filled with switches and dials. It was incredibly cramped, and I had trouble imagining spending five hours in one. Also, the reinforced cockpit door was impressive.

Hopkins also has a bomb response team. In fact, most of the Cleveland Police Department’s bomb equipment is kept at Hopkins.

I got to step into the bomb squad van. If there is a bomb threat in Cuyahoga County, this vehicle would head to the threat, a ramp would typically be lowered, and a large robot with a claw would roll over to the supposed bomb to contain it.

We also got the chance to pick up the bomb vest. It weighs about 90 pounds.

Hopkins' bomb team includes three dogs. They are partners with Cleveland police officers and go home with them. These dogs are trained at the Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas, but they are not trained to attack. Instead, they are trained to be comfortable with crowds. They are also trained to identify bomb smells, not drugs.

We were introduced to Viper, a black Labrador. We watched as he circled a truck, moved back and forth until he pinpointed an area with the most concentrated smell, sat frozen and stared at a compartment with inert explosives. Viper was spot-on.

I happened to fly into Hopkins just three days before this tour. I had known safety was an airport’s first line of business, but until this tour, I truly had no idea how much was going on behind the scenes.

[Look for further updates about the FBI Citizens' Academy from Colin McDermott.]

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