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Big-Game Strategy: Niki Papazoglakis Leads Tech Team to Successful Super Bowl LI

The program coordinator for Harris County, Texas, Information Technology and Services discusses the strategy involved in preparing for NFL's game of the year.

Super Bowl LI was played in Houston in NRG Stadium Feb. 5, 2017. It was a boon for the city of Houston and Harris County and a potential nightmare for first responders.

To make the event as safe as possible and to be as prepared as possible, Harris County prepared for about a year for the game and the 10-day event Super Bowl Live and NFL Experience leading up to it.

The preparation began at a rodeo, where first responders tested response, and continued leading up to the game with “dry runs” at Houston Texans football games and other events. At the heart of the preparation was Niki Papazoglakis, program coordinator for Harris County Information Technology and Services, who coordinated the public safety LTE network and mobile apps used during the events.

We snared Papazoglakis from her busy schedule to talk about the preparation and what was learned.  

You started planning about a year prior to the Super Bowl. Tell me about the 30-day rodeo, what you did there and what you learned.

We deployed a variety of different kinds of devices. At the time, there were three versions of Band-14-capable hardware. The primary one we used was the Sonim Rugged Smartphone XP7, and we used a push-to-talk app and a location service situational awareness app for location tracking and broadcast messaging and picture sharing.

We went to the rodeo and said, “We have this technology and we’d like to use it, what are your communications problems?” They said they’d like to get nonemergency or nonessential traffic off their one security channel if possible, and they wanted a man-down feature. They didn’t have location-identifying information on their radios.

We were successful in reducing the nonessential-type traffic, but it was a painful experience. Part of it was we didn’t have our network built and were using a [Cell on Wheels] a half-mile away. But the main takeaway as we deployed was that it was not really ready for boots-on-the-ground officers in a large-scale environment.

It worked well for them, but it was an isolated function. Since then, we’ve learned it works well for undercover teams and other types of use cases but not for a large-scale event. We came out of it thinking, “What now?” So we started from there with a blank sheet of paper.

We got buy-in from executive management from the Houston Police Department, Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the Houston Fire Department to commit resources to figure out what we wanted to do with the whole premise of augmenting radio communication. And we said, “Who do we think the likely user groups were going to be?” It was the more specialized units. The field intelligence teams (FITs) had clearly the strongest use case along with special events and special response groups.

We brought them all together and asked what their problems were likely to be, and from there built requirements from the ground up.

Prior to bringing everybody together, we made a conscious decision to try to use tools that the city or county had already purchased and fill gaps as needed. We mapped requirements to the products we had available, and couldn’t meet the majority of them.

We brought in an app called Moxtra as a group messaging and collaboration platform. We tabled some of the other tools when the users saw this one. The majority of our use case was around data-augmenting radio communications.

Tell me about the dry runs, how many of them there were and some of the experiences you had.

We had several. We used every home Texans game and other events like the Houston Marathon and the Thanksgiving Parade, stuff like that. People think Super Bowl and they think Game Day, but from a security standpoint, the broader threat was probably at the George R. Brown Convention Center, which was a 10-day event Super Bowl Live and NFL Experience. The bulk of the planning revolved around Super Bowl Live.

The Texans games proved not incredibly valuable to us in developing the Concept of Operations and the standard operating procedures because the officers that provide security are extra. It’s not their regular job, and they don’t have the same type of mentality, and it’s not the same kind of command and control structure in place.

The FIT sent two teams every week to go into the fusion center every home game and practice and test the technology. The games worked well for the EMS folks because they loved the ability to do the messaging.

We learned a lot at the Thanksgiving Parade in realizing who should have the technology and where it should be placed. The fire department got a lot of value out of using the location tracking to quickly dispatch their bike teams to medic calls and things like that.

It culminated with the marathon, and the biggest thing we learned from this is we had everyone in one chat room and that was great information for certain teams but created a lot of unnecessary notifications for everyone else. Like the bomb tech would get dispatched for a suspicious package and would take a picture of it but the other users didn’t care about that information. The biggest takeaway was we needed to segregate the teams and come up with an information flow of how the information would move from team to team and be shared.

You said that text messaging and picture sharing were the keys. Talk about the significance of that.

It so far exceeded our expectations of how it would be used and how successful it would be. The radio traffic between the city and county systems only went up 10 percent during that 10-day operational period. The messaging app was viewed almost 60,000 times and there were almost 7,000 unique messages created and like 1,200 pictures and videos so it was really heavy use. A lot of it was not the sexy stuff like arrests, but it was a lot of logistics. For example, an officer at a hotel took a picture of a printed list of license plates and sent it out saying these are the governor’s vehicles and are going to be parked here. That eliminated all the radio traffic of people calling in plates asking questions about the vehicles.

The pictures were incredibly valuable because it just cut down on the voice descriptions of things and the confusion and asking of questions and clarifications. It also significantly improved the information-sharing and interoperability across teams.