In April 2011, as some 100,000 fans converged in Talladega, Ala., for another NASCAR extravaganza, event organizers slipped into emergency mode.
With tornadoes spotted throughout the immediate area, a unified command center formed at the race track to broadcast instructions and warnings. Police officers and track security along with federal and state agencies coordinated efforts within the facility, sending text messages to track executives, drivers, public relations reps — anyone working at the event.
Emergency managers in the command center also coordinated with local police to reach out to the 30,000 to 40,000 campers that were already hunkered down at the site.
“We knew we were going to have some bad weather,” said Mike Lentz, senior director of security for NASCAR. And they did: Four tornadoes appeared within five miles of the race track, and while the twisters did not disrupt any race activities, emergency planners knew they had successfully safeguarded the scene.
It doesn’t take something as dramatic as tornadoes at a car race to spell potential big-event disaster. Even seemingly tame gatherings can offer their share of mayhem, as when more than 100 rowdy fans were arrested and 200 or so more taken into protective custody when country star Kenny Chesney performed at the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., in August 2009.
Bring together 80,000 people for a football game or 20,000 for a concert and the possibility exists for an emergency situation. During these events, the venue becomes a temporary city, with all the potential perils that implies. The combination of large numbers of people, in a confined space, with spirits high and alcohol flowing can lead to catastrophe. It’s a threat that promoters, venue operators and emergency planners have learned to take seriously.
Emergency managers can reel off the dangers inherent in any major event, from a crush in the doorways to an active shooter in the bleachers, from drunken brawls to the famed and sometimes fatal soccer riots seen in Europe.
Dave Touhey is well aware of the risks.
As senior vice president and general manager of the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., he routinely sees crowds of 20,000 or more assemble for hockey games, rock concerts, circuses and ice follies. His most recent challenge came from more sacred precincts: an 11-day world peace event featuring the Dalai Lama that drew up to 16,000 people to any one session.
Security took on an international component, with venue operators working in close cooperation with the sacred guest’s handlers in the State Department. To pre-empt political violence, Touhey kept tabs on the Homeland Security Information Network, which broadcasts unclassified potential threats. His team brought in metal detectors for the event, kept close watch on crowd control, and were especially careful around the trinket vendors.
“We’re used to events handing out hats and towels. With this they had cleansing water and special beads,” Touhey said. “Some of the people, you wouldn’t think they were here for world peace, the way they were pushing through the crowds to get these things. So you have to manage around that too. It sounds easy when you talk about it, but when you are here for 14 hours a day, 11 days in a row, it wears on you.”
If operators like Touhey have their hands full during major gatherings, at least they are not going it alone. It’s typical for on-site security to work with the FBI, DHS and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — any or all of whom may have a presence on game day.
In this post-9/11 world, terrorism is an ever-present threat. “Anywhere where there is a mass gathering of people, there’s a potential target,” said Stacey Hall, associate director of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security. “In your worst-case scenario, you have a vehicle-borne IED, you have suicide bombers within the stadium. That’s more than just your typical crowd control.”
Beyond crowd control and terror threats, event organizers also must wrangle with the Constitution, treading carefully on such issues as the rights to free assembly and free speech.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization has faced the issue firsthand in legal challenges to its policy of mandatory pat-downs, which some have viewed as illegal search-and-seizures. One elegant solution, Hall said, is to make the pat-downs a condition of entry. In such a case, fans submit voluntarily to the search, thus avoiding a constitutional clash.
Whatever the issue on the table, the fundamentals of security for big events remain largely the same, according to Matt Bettenhausen, chief security officer for AEG Worldwide, a promoter and stadium operator that puts on 10,000 events per year.
For example, it’s typical for event operators either to hire off-duty police officers to help manage an event or, even more often, the venue will engage the services of local on-duty law enforcement, and will compensate the police department for those officers’ time. These front-line players handle block and tackle, everything from inspecting bags to facilitating medical assistance.
On a higher plane, emergency planning for a large event demands the nurturing of long-standing relationships, Bettenhausen said. “You want to get specific fire, police and EMS officials who regularly work with the facility,” he said. “It really helps to have specifically designated first response partners. They get to know the facility, they get to understand crowd flow, they get to know our players, and we know theirs. You don’t want to be handing out business cards when something happens.”
For Bettenhausen, relationship-building has an internal element as well. With more than 100 stadiums and arenas in its portfolio, it’s important that AEG makes security happen within its own ranks. Bettenhausen’s team provides security training at one to two facilities per month.
The security team reviews best practices and policies, goes over past incidents and updates a facility’s emergency operations plan at least once every three years. “Those are living documents,” Bettenhausen said. “They need to be changed and modified as time goes on based on experience.”
The flow of information goes both ways, with local venues pumping information back up to headquarters. “When there are incidents, we need to know who it was, what it was about. It’s important for our analytical abilities,” Bettenhausen said. “If there are things we see at one facility, it may be important to ask people to watch out at other facilities.”
Beyond these internal checks, it’s possible to take best practices one step further by engaging outside security experts to review the scene. “It’s always better to have an external audit as well, someone who can see things you don’t normally see, a fresh pair of eyes,” Hall said. “You could have a hole in your fence or maybe your people are not adequately trained, and you may not be able to see those things yourself.”
For law enforcement, a major event may demand the highest levels of emergency planning and response. While promoters and venues may handle much of the security burden on their own, ultimately they rely on public servants to ensure that things go smoothly.
A good example comes from Baltimore, where the annual Preakness Stakes horse race regularly draws more than 100,000 people. “We obviously are monitoring ticket sales week by week,” said Baltimore Police Department (BPD) spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. As attendance figures swell, his department braces for impact.
While the BPD assigns a force to the track on race day, the department also delivers
high-level security services for the event, coordinating all levels of emergency service through a 24-hour special operations section. Headed by a major, this one-stop shop has access to all assets, including SWAT teams and helicopters, if need be. It coordinates traffic management and organizes the activities of the several hundred uniformed and plainclothes officers who are working onsite at the race.
Guglielmi describes “the unexpected” as being the greatest challenge to securing the race. Sometimes that can work in favor of emergency planners. When race organizers limited drinking a few years back, for example, the BPD found itself happily overstaffed at the ground level.
But the unexpected always can swing the other way too. “All of a sudden it’s 100 degrees and everyone is starting to pass out in the infield,” Guglielmi said. “Not only do we have to make sure we have medical systems in place, but we also have to make sure the ambulances can get there and that they will have a clear way to the hospitals.”
Sometimes in the face of the unexpected, the best thing emergency managers can do may be to use mind control. So says Mike Hasson, vice president of security and services at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
When the center hosted the X Games, a free sports event, roughly 12,000 patrons quickly filled the stadium, while thousands more visited outdoor exhibits. At one point, about 3,000 to 4,000 people gathered at the gate seeking entrance to the already at-capacity arena. Those at the back kept pressing forward even after the doors had closed. It was a perilous moment.
“Now you have created a crowd control situation that you hadn’t been led to expect,” Hasson said.
Security personnel took action. “We went out there, and we lied to the people through bullhorns. We told them the building would open in half an hour, and we did that to get them away from creating this push,” he said. “That was the best way to create safety. We just lied.”
Nothing is ever easy in the world of emergency management — and big-event security is no exception.
First there’s the sheer volume of security needs. No one venue will have a complement
of personnel on staff sufficient to secure safety and deal with the possible contingencies of a large-scale event. That means hiring outside help, which can be problematic. “Part of the issue is that when you outsource this, you do lose some control over the level of training your people are receiving,” Hall said. The solution lies in having a tightly scripted security protocol, a crystal-clear set of policies and procedures backed by a methodical training regimen.
Then there is the money angle.
As security planners budget for training and other measures, they may butt up against financial constraints. “Management may not think there is a need. It’s not going to happen to us, we’ve never had any issues in the past,” Hall said. “Everybody is in a financial crisis and nobody wants to invest in security because there is ‘no return.’ So it’s important for emergency managers to make the case for the cost-benefit analysis. It’s critical that people understand the importance of being proactive.”