How I Work: 17 questions with TSA officer Dana Burrell

How I Work: 17 questions with TSA officer Dana Burrell
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Eudania “Dana” Burrell has worked for TSA for 16 years, joining the organization shortly after 9/11.

Before she was hired by the Transportation Security Administration, Burrell and her daughters were experiencing homelessness. She says, “I prayed for this job. TSA was a lifesaver. And I feel like now I’ve been apart of saving other people’s lives. I believe that because I’m on the job, someone’s life is saved every single day.”

While I chatted with Dana, she gave me some helpful hints about navigating Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, explaining that if you’re traveling in the morning, checkpoint E usually moves quickly. She says to avoid checkpoint A. Watch out in the afternoon though, as checkpoint E becomes  “a beast.”

When I asked why my bag gets pulled for a more thorough search at one airport and not another, even though it’s the same bag with the same contents, she explained it’s due to “different eyes and a different orientation. Security is ever-changing.”

Here’s how the Supervisory Transportation Security Officer, who shortly after this interview moved from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport to Concord Regional Airport, works.

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(1) What do you actually do here?

If I’m running a checkpoint, I’m overseeing an entire checkpoint of officers. There could be anywhere from 17 to 22 officers, maybe a little bit more, on a checkpoint and I’m overseeing the entire operation.

I’m listening out for alarms. I’m listening out for if anybody needs help.

I’m doing administrative work, and I’m making sure that our coordination center is up-to-date with our wait times and the number of passengers that are coming through. We’re inputting that each and every hour. That’s calculated on a daily basis.

I am ensuring that nothing gets through the checkpoint that could possibly take down a plane. That’s ultimately my job is to oversee that everything is running smoothly.

I have what is called a lead who works very closely with me, and that person takes care of the officers’ rotations, making sure each officer is rotated out of a position every 30 minutes so that complacency doesn’t set in, or fatigue, as well as making sure breaks are issued and that people are coming back in a timely manner.

(2) What do the stripes on your uniform mean?

These are our epaulettes. Three stripes are for supervisors, two stripes for lead officers, and the one stripe is for the officer themselves.

(3) What’s your go-to strategy for defusing a situation with an angry passenger?

First of all, I’m connected with me. I make sure that I’m calm, because that’s what I want to reflect back to them. And listening is key.

Let’s say it’s a passenger who’s angry about something being taken away. The first question is, “Did you know about this rule?” Because if you knew, then okay, you already knew. And so yes, it might have gotten through in Jacksonville, but in Charlotte, it didn’t get through. But you knew. So now we’re going to move further into why you might be frustrated.

Then I’ll ask them, “Can I ask you some questions?” to see if they’re open. Because if they’re shut down, I’m not going to get through. Nine times out of 10 though, people are open.

I’ll ask them, “Did you ever think maybe you got stopped just to practice patience today? Or just to make a connection?”

You’d be amazed at how many light bulbs I see in people’s eyes go off. It’s like, “Wow, okay. You know what? I never thought of it like that. Thank you.”

I get hugs every single day.  That’s what I love about my job.

(4) What’s the first thing you do when you walk into work each day?

I greet people. I’m a people person. You’d be amazed at what passengers will share with you in a few seconds of conversing if you just allow yourself to stay open.

And then I’m coming upstairs and I’m getting my (officer) numbers together.

I’m usually 45 minutes to an hour early. I sometimes get teased about that.

I’m usually able to help management though because they coordinate to see how many officers are needed at each checkpoint. Because I’m here so early, I can say to the managers, “Hey, this is how many officers I have. Where do you need me to send them?”

(5) What’s the strangest thing someone’s ever tried to get through security?

Oh my gosh. We’ve had some strange things.

A grenade. It wasn’t an actual one that could explode, but it was a grenade nonetheless. They thought that was okay. No, you scared the hell out of everyone and we were ready to close down the airport!

I’ve had so many.

I had a guy come through with a duffel bag full of ammunition. FULL of it. Loose ammunition. That was crazy.

Dead animals.

I’ve seen a lot.

Nothing shocks or surprises me anymore.

(6) If you’re in a rush and are hoping to get through security faster, what should you do?

I may be out in the line and a passenger comes up to me, “Ma’am, I’m about to miss my flight!” It happens quite often.

I’ll say, “I can’t just allow you to cut through the line, but these kind people in front of you, you may want to ask them.” People may hear me and if they’re not in a rush, you’d be surprised how many people will say, “Yeah, go on through.”

Just be kind to one another. You’d be surprised how many people will respond to that.

(7) What’s one thing people don’t understand about airports and airport security?

The dynamics of how our checkpoints are set up and the officers and what each position is doing.

Let’s say you’re at the bag check station. You may see three or four officers standing around and only one is doing the bag check. Then passengers are like, “Well why can’t she get the bag check?”

Our system isn’t set up like that.

It only allows us to look at one bag at a time. That’s why.

You have an officer who’s waiting for what we call “random.” Random alarms. A person will come through and you’ll hear a beep. We can distinguish between those, whether their person is physically alarming or whether it’s a random search.

Then you have officers who are doing bag searches.

The passenger perceives it as all of these officers standing around. No. They’re waiting for that opportunity for a random or a bag check or for any other thing that comes up.

(8) What’s the best part of your job?

I get to work with hundreds of different people every day. Not only my co-workers, but the passengers. I love it. I embrace it. I love the challenge of it.

I love being able to help people. Not only because I’m securing their lives, but also because sometimes I’m touching their lives in a way that I don’t know what the far rippling effects will be.

(9) What’s the worst part of your job?

(laughs) Every job has a worst part.

The lack of staff sometimes stretches us.

And so where I might be doing the job of one person, now I might be doing the job of three and so I’m juggling.

Because of that, when I walk in the building I have to be on my toes. I never know who’s going to have low staff and then high volume. When you have low staff, high volume. Oh my gosh. Yeah, that’s the one part I don’t care for.

(10) What’s one thing they don’t teach you in high school that they should?

Finances. They don’t tell you how to handle your finances and how important credit scores are. And you pay for what you don’t know, you truly do.

(11) What are some apps you can’t live without?

I love Calm. It gets me back into the now. It keeps me in touch with where I’m at and what I’m doing. I gotta have Calm.

(12) Do you use social media? If so, do you have a favorite platform?

I do a little bit of Facebook. I love Instagram. I usually post every day. I’ve just recently started some new things outside of my work, which I love and hope to be doing later on, which is motivational speaking as well as coaching. This is my platform for that work right now.

(13) What time do you go to bed and what time do you wake up?

I’m very particular about sleep and taking care of myself. I work from 12 to 8:30 pm. I get home at nine. I’ll get to bed about 10 or 11 o’clock, and I’m up at 5:30 am.

I have a daughter that lives with me with two grandsons and I love to see them in the morning. I love greeting them. I like to meditate. I like to make my breakfast. I like to make my lunch and I like to move slowly through my mornings, because it seems when I do that then I’m in order.

My mind is fresh when I step in here. I’m on the ball. There’s nothing getting to me. I’m on top of things when I feel like I have taken care of me. Now I’m ready to take care of everyone.

(14) How long is your commute and what do you do during it?

I ride in silence a lot of the time. This morning I felt like listening to music. It all depends on how I’m feeling.

If somebody comes up in my thoughts, I never miss the opportunity to call them. It’s a perfect time because it’s a 20-minute commute. It gives me time to talk to someone I might not have connected with in a while. Whenever someone comes up in my mind, I believe that’s my inner being telling me, “You need to connect with this person.”

(15) What are some unusual habits you have and why do you have them?

I carry a chakra stone. Today I have my heart stone. I may have a mantra for the day or a centering thought, and it just brings me back to my center. You know, I might be experiencing some anxiety or frustration and, unknowingly, I’ll stick my hand in my pocket and it’s a reminder.

(16) What everyday thing are you really good at?

I think I’m really good at getting a gauge of where people are. As far as my officers are concerned, it’s so important for me to find out where they are, mentally.

I want to make sure everybody is fit for duty, everyone’s good and ready to perform.

This isn’t a job where you can phone it in. That could be life-changing. Not just for the officer, but for other people’s lives.

(17) What advice would you give to your 30-year-old self?

You’re going to be okay. Slow down. It’ll all work out.


Love learning how people work? Here’s the whole How I Work series including interviews with Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst, Governor Roy Cooper, developer David Furman, elevator lady Cherie Berry, Hornets player Cody Zeller, restauranteur Frank Scibelli, lawyer Michael A. DeMayo and Charlotte Checkers COO Tera Black.

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