When Corporal Frank Schiano starts his shift at the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport (PIE), he likes to walk to a specific spot on the second floor that overlooks baggage claim. The area he likes to call “the perch” gives him a bird’s-eye view of the bustling travelers below him. Over the past two years he has worked in the Airport Unit, Corporal Schiano has noticed people from the perch who are disorderly, suspicious, or lost. As one of 12 Airport Unit members tasked with airport safety and security, Corporal Schiano stays alert to anticipate threats so he can respond to them quickly.
Although PIE is small in comparison to other international airports, the Airport Unit has the large responsibility of working alongside the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the FBI, and Airport Operations personnel to ensure the security and safety of about 2,000 acres of property. Not only does the unit monitor all entryways and exits throughout the terminals, security checkpoints, and baggage claim, but they also patrol the 10-mile perimeter of the property and surrounding hangers.
In addition to the commercial airlines, like Allegiant Air, PIE leases to more than 50 aviation and non-aviation tenants, including the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), the U.S. Army Reserve, and private jets that cater to celebrities and sports teams like the Tampa Bay Rays.
“We are basically a city within a city,” Corporal Schiano said. “Three-thousand people come through here every day. This may be a smaller airport, but we have the same issues like disorderly passengers and lost bags. However, most of the time, we are dealing with good people who just need help finding their way to the gate.”
While there is a community policing aspect of working at the airport and most days can be routine, there is always the potential for a dangerous incident. On July 17, 2021, an intoxicated man drove a stolen vehicle through a security gate at PIE and ultimately reached the cockpit of a USCG C-130.
“You definitely have to be on your toes here,” Deputy Deborah Cieglo, who has been with the sheriff’s office for 22 years, said. “You know that if something is going to go down, it’s going to go down big and fast. People definitely have a misconception of airport deputies. We are watching everything, and we want people to know that.”
Just six months ago, on January 18th, Deputy Cieglo was working the day shift and was standing at the curb when a woman frantically approached her and said her boyfriend was unresponsive in his wheelchair. Deputy Cieglo rushed to the man’s side and started CPR, alerted airport staff to get an AED, and ultimately saved his life. Medical professionals later told her that if she hadn’t been there, he would have suffered permanent brain damage, and may have died. Deputy Cieglo received a Bright Star Award for her heroic actions.
“I was elated about it, but I was just doing my job,” she said.
At times, the daily tasks of serving and protecting citizens at PIE seem straightforward, but there are other unique duties associated with the role as well. For example, PIE is situated among a vital ecosystem that is full of wildlife. There have been times when Corporal Schiano has seen manatees and dolphins playing in the water at sunset while checking the communication towers, and times when the deputies have protected bird nests in the roadways.
Whether escorting dignitaries like the governor, helping prevent coyotes from interfering with aircraft, or simply making people feel safe while they board their flight, the Airport Unit is an essential piece of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.