PENSACOLA NAVAL AIR STATION, Fla. – For nearly 15 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and more than eight years since the mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas, Pensacola Naval Air Station has remained an unusually open U.S. military base — until now.
The nation's first naval air station and home of the popular Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron this month has enacted strict new, permanent security measures intended to separate the nearly 1 million tourists who visit the base each year from the thousands of sailors, Marines and other military employees who work on the base.
Security experts say the surprising thing is that base has remained relatively open for so long.
"It appears they are late to the game on this," said Scott White, a professor of homeland security and security management at Drexel University in Iowa and former intelligence officer for the Canadian defense department.
White said the previously open environment at the base is a rare reminder of different era.
"Nowadays every military installation is a potential target as is anyone in a uniform," he said.
Base officials say they have worked through the years to prioritize safety while accommodating the steady stream of tourists. But Cmdr. Shawn Dominguez, executive officer of the base, said the base had to align itself with Department of Defense security standards that physically separate tourists and other unauthorized visitors from military operations.
Dominguez, who has been at the base for only a few months, said it was unusual that the public had become accustomed to relatively easy access there.
"The base has been here for a long time and brings a tremendous economic benefit to the community," he said. "But I think everybody understands that in this security environment, the changes are necessary."
The base now has separate entrance gates — one for military members and base employees and another for tourists and other visitors. The gates are about three miles apart.
In the past, large warning signs made it clear that unauthorized people were not allowed on specific areas of the base and base security kept close watch on those areas. Under the new system, tourists will be denied access to military areas without passing internal guard booths and roadblocks.
Visitors will also have to show identification and carry a visitor pass issued in their name. The pass must be presented to security officials at their destination. Anyone visiting military buildings or training areas must be issued a special visitor pass and be escorted.
Thousands of tourists enter the base several mornings each week from March through October to watch the Blue Angels practice. The practices are often followed by pilot autograph signings inside the National Museum of Naval Aviation.
Also located inside the base are two historic forts, which date to the late 1700s, a popular Civil War-era lighthouse, a sprawling military cemetery, an 18-hole military golf course and beach recreation area for active duty and retired military.
Separating the tourists and recreational aspects of the base from its military operations has been complicated by the way the base is laid out with tourist and recreation areas near working military personnel, said Harold Saintcloud, the base's anti-terrorism and security officer.
The Department of Defense media office declined comment on base security issues in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. The department also declined to comment on whether the situation at Naval Air Station Pensacola is unique because of the large number of tourists visiting the base each year.
Retired Navy pilot Mikal "Butch" Kissick owns Wings Aviation, a military memorabilia and supply store just outside the gates of the Naval Air Station Pensacola. Kissick said his customer base is mostly Naval aviators who work on the base and that he isn't concerned about not having tourists passing by his store.
"This was long overdue," he said. "I have often thought about how easy it was to get onto the base. They needed to tighten security."