While working for Homeland Security you were hand-selected to go to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina -- what was it like to be on the front lines of the recovery effort?
New Orleans was an unforgettable experience. I was absolutely honored to be chosen to support Admiral Allen in setting up the Joint Information Center in New Orleans. After a few days I started to assess the animal rescue situation and discovered that we were not handling the situation as we should. Many animals at this point were too weak to cry out for help and were slowly dying inside their owners’ homes who couldn’t come back to save them. I raised the red flag on this issue during an 0700 briefing with the Admiral’s Chief of Staff, New Orleans Homeland Security, the state of Louisiana and all the other agencies. I wasn’t taking this conversation “off line” as is customary when there’s a heated discussion, and I looked straight in the face of the officials of the State and told them it’s about time they start asking for our help. I was honored that the White House contacted me to get an update on the animal rescue situation. I think many things will be done differently if history repeats itself.
What motivated you to leave your position at Homeland Security to join Miami International Airport?
The challenge of becoming the first woman in the history of MIA to be the Assistant Director over Security was my motivation. But then I was told that I would be running the Communications Division, too. How many Security Directors for major international airports oversee both Security and Communications? The media has become an integral part of our security program which is why we support the Travel Channel’s desire to show what goes on behind the “No Entry Zones” of MIA. People have the right to know that their security is our number priority.
You were a journalism and communications major in college -- how and why did you get into this industry?
I had no idea what I wanted to “become” in college. That’s like asking a student to pick a spouse for the rest of their life. I wanted to go into criminal justice and join the FBI however my parents but the kibosh on that. Public Relations was broad enough to give me some wiggle room to navigate in the profession, and journalism and communications seemed like something that would fit my personality. I would suggest to our college population that if anyone asks what do you want to do when you “grow up,” the answer should be, “I’ll let you know when I get there!”
When you train your staff with behavior recognition techniques, what is the most important thing you tell them? Is there a certain way that people behave that gets them pulled aside for private screenings?
The first thing I train our staff to understand is that 9/11 isn’t over. Aviation remains the number one target for terrorism, period. We don’t have a crystal ball to tell us when the next attack will take place, what time of day, where, how many operatives will be involved, how it will take place and if there will be any diversionary tactics. We have to use our behavioral detection skills to help us mitigate those unknowns.
We train that one’s behavior is a great indicator of “intentions” and not the color of their skin. If that’s what one uses to rely on, you’re missing the boat. Behavior can come in the form of surveillance, asking questions that are probing in nature, avoiding eye contact, dressing inappropriately for the type of travel one is taking, being in a zone mentally and other behavioral indicators we train our employees to look for.
If travelers were to find themselves in a precarious situation when going through security, what are some things you would suggest they do or not do to avoid further trouble?
I would definitely suggest that one does not say you have a bomb on you in order to get a rise out of us -- unless of course you want to stay an extra night in Miami for free. I highly recommend travelers get enrolled in Global Entry. It’s a good deal for traveling and will become increasingly more important to domestic and international travelers.
You were named 2011’s Outstanding Law Enforcement Officer of the Year. What did this honor mean to you?
I am humbled and honored to have been recognized by the U.S. Attorney in Miami. The irony to all of this was that the last time the U.S. Attorney’s Office put MIA in the spotlight was back in 1999 during the famous “Operation Ramp Rats” where we had a major drug bust here at the airport. And now they’re honoring the Security Director … me! How strange and wonderful. I accepted this award on behalf of all our partners at MIA. I am so proud of all the agencies that work at MIA. We are a great team which includes our predecessors. I’m just a reflection of everyone’s hard work.
What kind of leadership approach do you take when dealing with your staff?
Very simple … my leadership style is that I work for my employees. I’m only as effective as my weakest link. My philosophy is to provide them with the tools, the resources and the training they need to do their job. I can handle mistakes but not anyone who lies, cheats or steals. That is non-negotiable. I try and communicate with my staff as best as possible and want them to know they are my priority.
What are a few of the craziest things you have ever seen intercepted?
I’ve seen some weird things happen at the checkpoint because of body piercings in certain areas. Also, I’ve seen walking canes with knives in them and a teddy bear stuffed with a loaded firearm. It’s the artfully concealed items that people don’t expect our TSA officers to find, but they do!
Being the Director of Security, your job can be very stressful, how do you blow off steam outside of the airport?
My favorite thing in the world is boating and fishing with my husband and my dogs on the Bone Voyage. I also loved to ride my Harley Davidson, but my husband and I decided to sell our motorcycles. We enjoy my convertible hot rod instead – much safer.
Working in Security, you must have a few secrets. Is there anything about you that might surprise our audience?
I hate flying and I don’t like public speaking -- 2 critical components to my job. My ears don’t equalize when I’m flying so I have to wear earplugs and take an antihistamine, and I get nervous when I have to speak in front of our monthly security consortium meeting with our airlines. I was called to testify before the House Homeland Subcommittee on Transportation Security. I was so nervous for this testimony that evacuating the terminal for a security threat is a less stressful event for me. But after I vomited, I think I did pretty well.