Public Safety & Homeland Security

How San Francisco International Airport Stays Secure

Henry Thompson, associate deputy airport director of Operations and Security, discusses SFO's approach to security and training.

by / October 3, 2013

Henry Thompson is the associate deputy airport director of Operations and Security for the San Francisco International Airport (SFO). We sat down with him for an interview and a tour of SFO prior to the crash landing of Asiana Flight 214 that killed three and hurt 181 on July 6. Thompson heads eight departments at SFO and is responsible for a staff of 155, covering all aspects of safety and security at the airport. He showed Emergency Management magazine what would happen in the event of a plane crash and how the airport monitors security.

Question: Can you talk about some of the different departments?
Answer: We have our 911 dispatch center and public safety center here. Those cover emergency planning and operations and airfield and safety and operations. The security access office covers regulatory compliance on the security side. Then we have a section called the security operations center, which is our proactive way of conducting surveillance at the airport here.

You mentioned the new safety management system office. What does that do?
The FAA is contemplating a new regulation that requires all commercial airports to have a safety management system in place. It is a program that is designed to start looking at safety in more of a proactive manner to try to identify safety hazards and risks upfront and to address issues before they happen.

Does that mean terrorism?
No, it’s more safety in respect to where the aircraft are operating at the airport. So there is a proposed rule that the FAA is working on right now with input from the industry that will basically result in a regulation requiring safety management system programs being implemented. We are not really sure what that regulation is going to say yet or where it is headed, but we are being proactive. I have hired a safety management system manger and we are starting to look at all of our safety programs to conduct an inventory and see where we need to go.

You mentioned being proactive with surveillance. Can you talk about that?
There is a lot of activity happening here at the airport on a daily basis. So we have created what we call our security operations center, which is staffed by a security analyst 24/7 monitoring the security of the airport. Essentially they are really focused on monitoring to ensure that proper procedures are followed and appropriate response is given to it. When there isn’t something actively going on, they are conducting surveillance of the airport with thousands of cameras located throughout to ensure the safety and security of the traveling public.

How many people do you have monitoring cameras?

Generally there are two analysts who are on duty and performing these duties. It’s not just monitoring cameras, it’s responding to door alarms and investigating security issues, supporting the police and other security staff who are in the field. So it is a very proactive way of addressing security.

How do they monitor all of those? Is there a way that the cameras would notify you if something is out of the ordinary?
We do have features built into our security system whereby we are alerted if there is something going on. For example, if someone goes through a door that they are not authorized to go through and they set off an alarm, we will automatically get a camera call up on that door. We can see exactly what is occurring at the door in the moment and we can rewind and fast-forward to see where that individual went.

You said that you looked into facial recognition too?

Facial recognition is something that we are very interested in and the technology isn’t quite where it needs to be today, but we have our eye on it and we will certainly be moving in that direction as soon as it is appropriate.

Talk about the changes in safety and security in the last 10 years.
Just in the past 10 to 12 years, SFO is probably twice the size that it was. We’ve expanded our facilities and our traffic has recovered and continues to grow. As you know, security threats are a major concern for every commercial airport, and so security has to be on the forefront of everything we do.

We have been on the leading edge and it has been a priority, but now the way we approach that responsibility is different and we employ technology is different. We have layers of security and there is nothing that is not relevant when it comes to security; we have really focused on creating a culture of awareness about security and it’s not just the folks who [perform] the primary function of security who are focused on security. It is everyone who works in this environment and at SFO.
We have about 20,000 employees that we issue badges to, and all of those folks have to undergo specialized training and security on what to look for. And they have responsibilities that come with having a badge. We rely today quite a bit on the traveling public to see things and report things that are unusual as well.

Are there communications with other state and federal agencies that go on daily?
There is both on the safety side as well as the security side. We work closely with our partners at the TSA, Customs and Border Protection, FBI. The San Francisco Police Department has an airport bureau here and they are part of our security team, so they are actually hand in hand with us. We are located in San Mateo County so we have San Mateo County Sheriffs, who are a part of our security team as well.

Do you have a lot of those threats that the public never hears about?
I will say yes we do. Now the severity and validity of them all varies and the types of threats that come through, it all varies, but we take them all seriously and they all get vetted out and certainly the public doesn’t hear about all of them.

Are there other technologies in place here that you can talk about?
I don’t want to get into a lot of the specifics about it, but I will say that here in San Francisco, we are very focused on technology, and more and more technology is being used to help us manage security. We are looking at the application of technology in just about everything we do today. Anything that we once did manually that required solely staffing, we are looking at doing it faster, better, more efficiently. We are supplementing our team with layers of technology as well. We have a lot of good technology that is in place at the airport here today and we have a lot of technology that we are looking at for the future.

Let’s talk more about the safety side of things.
FAA requires airports to have emergency procedures in place to be able to handle just about any type of an emergency from a major aircraft mishap to bomb threats and things of that nature. So we have emergency procedures in place that fully comply with that, but in a lot of instances we go above and beyond that. We are truly a city within a city, so we have significant resources here on the airport alone so that we are able to address any type of incident that occurs. Whether that be an aircraft or a natural disaster or terrorist incident, regardless, we can respond to it.

Sounds like an all-hazards approach.
Absolutely. From just about any direction, we have the procedures and resources to do that. We have the support of both San Francisco and San Mateo counties with mutual aid capabilities coming from both directions. We are constantly exercising our procedures; it is a continuous process with us. We have three fire stations here on the airport to address aircraft incidents, structural fires, medical responses and we have had quite a few of those; you would be surprised how many people get sick traveling.

And as I mentioned earlier, we essentially have a precinct of the San Francisco Police Department here on the airport and that force is larger than some of the police forces on the peninsula cities. We have other resources to draw from the federal agencies that are here, some armed and some not. So we are in a good place to be able to execute and respond to just about anything that could come up.

Including an earthquake?
That is very much on the forefront of our minds and not just responding to the effects of the earthquake itself and making sure that we rescue people and making sure the environment is safe, but that we really plan ahead for being able to take care of the people who might find themselves here after an earthquake — find themselves stranded here at the airport.

That is a lot of planning and training. How do you find time to do that?
We have training that is continuous, but exercises are planned throughout the year and that’s a necessary component of the training, of the procedures, of making sure that you exercise it and make sure people are familiar with what to do when they need to do it. We actually go above and beyond in exercising. The FAA requires a triennial air crash exercise. We do it once a year here at SFO just to make sure that all of the layers are in place and everyone understands what we need to do and how to do it. Because it is one thing to exercise it, and it is a whole other thing to implement it when it really happens.

Jim McKay Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at