Security Planning for Major Events

For Los Angeles, the recent memorial services for Michael Jackson were comparable to a state funeral in the nation’s capital.  Major events pose varying security and public-safety challenges requiring a systematic approach. However, there are very few criteria for determining what constitutes a major event from a public-safety and security perspective.  Examination of the federal model for managing major national events is therefore a valuable template for state, local, and tribal communities to follow.

Presidential Decision Directive 62 (PDD-62), issued by President Bill Clinton in 1998, represented an early effort to address national major event standardization by assigning responsibility for coordinating “events of national significance” to the U.S. Secret Service (USSS).  That executive action led to the Presidential Threat Reduction Act of 2000, which gives the USSS statutory authority as the lead federal agency for security planning of National Special Security Events (NSSEs).  The president, or his designee – the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – determines which events merit the NSSE designation by considering, among other factors, the potential dignitary attendance, size, and significance of a specific event.

Surprisingly, perhaps, over the past 11 years there have been only about 30 NSSEs declared. Moreover, NSSE designation seems to be just as likely for an unfunded event as for an unfunded one. Congress did not provide funding to USSS for NSSEs, in fact, until 2006.  Furthermore, obtaining federal funding for state, local, and tribal jurisdictions is even more difficult to achieve. However, non-federal agencies are usually able to use State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSGP) and/or Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) funds to support at least some NSSE security expenses.  In addition, the cities hosting Democratic and/or Republican nominating conventions are usually provided some federal funding for security at those events.

The NSSE model provides a number of “gold standard” best-practice examples for lesser events.  From a local perspective, it does not take federal designation for an event to be “Special and Significant” to the local community. For example, in the spring of 2002 Major League Baseball (MLB) sought NSSE designation for that year’s All Star Game.  The MLB request was denied, but only a few months later the Super Bowl (XXXVI) was declared an NSSE (as has been every Super Bowl since then).  For the law-enforcement community of Milwaukee (Wis.), the All Star Game was a Local Special Security Event.  Like NSSEs at the national level, that particular local event posed security challenges that far exceeded the capabilities of any single local jurisdiction participating.  The structure used for coordinating and managing NSSE security, however, proved to be a useful model.

Security Coordination at Major Events

There are few if any other metropolitan areas anywhere in the world that manage as many major events as the U.S. National Capital Region (NCR) – i.e., the greater Washington, D.C., area.  During a preparation exercise for the 2005 Presidential Inauguration, then-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge asked Joseph Trindal, regional director of Federal Protective Service (NCR), and co-author of this article, if it was difficult coordinating security with so many law-enforcement agencies involved.  “Not at all,” Trindal responded, “we frequently work closely together because most events in Washington require interagency coordination.”  For the almost 40 jurisdictions within the NCR, almost every event is a local special security event.

Local special-security events provide excellent opportunities for state, local, and tribal jurisdictions to plan together with a common purpose.  Planning and coordination are vital to safe and enjoyable local as well as national special events.  The NSSE structure pre-establishes the basic principle that all major events are examined against security-relevant, risk-based criteria. Analysis of the NSSEs rests with a single department of the Executive Branch of government. On the federal side, therefore, there is no confusion or uncertainty about the DHS role. After an event has been declared an NSSE, a single agency is assigned the principal responsibility for security coordination and planning.

Leveraging the NSSE model at the local level should start, therefore, with ensuring that the responsibility for security coordination and planning is assigned to a pre-designated law-enforcement agency. Other municipal, county, state, and private-sector stakeholders can and should, however, support the security function within their own core competencies and capabilities.

The Pre-Planning Phase of Major Events

In 2006, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued an excellent report of best practices for major event planning. That report – Planning and Managing Security for Major Special Events: Guidelines for Law Enforcement Administrators (i.e., the Guidelines) – provides practical guidance for major event planning at the local level.  With input from the USSS and numerous other contributors, early event planning was highlighted in the Guidelines as an essential best practice.

The planning for major events should balance public safety and public enjoyment with a realistic risk assessment.  For example, a continuing risk related to the annual Independence Day celebrations on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is the possibility that severe and/or fast-moving thunderstorms can produce dangerous lightning.  After some rather tense events, a well coordinated plan was developed to provide early warning, rapid notification, and even temporary shelter for the hundreds of thousands of people who might be crowded together on or near the Mall when a thunderstorm approaches. That particular risk, and the contingency plan developed to deal with it, has turned out to be a repeated reality over the years.

The Guidelines also stress the need to plan for worst-case scenarios, including but not limited to natural disasters as well as criminal, crowd-control, and terrorist contingencies.  Certain events also should include special sections for dealing with pre- and/or post-event protests.

Following the NSSE model, a local-event security-management structure should incorporate the Incident Command System (ICS).  The Guidelines recommend the development of an event-specific organizational structure.  Among the several important components of the ICS structure is the Administration and Finance Section – which also should reflect appropriate interagency collaboration and contributions.

Many local major events are recurring and/or otherwise well known in advance.  The development of a 12-to-18 month planning timeline not only can greatly ensure the broad inclusion of all participating stakeholders but also provide sufficient time for thorough preparations in advance.  In 2002, a local special-security event – but with national relevance – was thrust upon the City of Alexandria, Va.  The DOJ had decided to hold a terrorist trial at the Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse in this densely populated city just outside of the nation’s capital.  Fortunately, from the security planner’s point of view, the U.S. judicial process is slow and deliberate – which meant, in this situation, that federal, state, and local agencies were able to coordinate, plan, and exercise extensively as the judicial proceeding for Zacharias Moussaoui moved steadily but very slowly toward his conviction and sentencing in 2006.

During the same period, not incidentally, other notable figures – including John Walker Lindh (the “American Taliban”) and Robert Hanssen (ex-FBI agent/Russian spy) – also faced federal justice. The pre-event preparations in those cases developed and greatly strengthened interagency relations across disciplines of police, fire, hazmat, medical, transportation, and emergency-management services.  In addition, the private sector and community were engaged partners to the overall security profile.  The community in general was well informed and an active participant by the timely reporting of suspicious activities to the proper authorities. In this example, each day of planning was in essence a prior-planning drill for major events in the Moussaoui trial such as key judicial rulings, the verdict, and sentencing as well as other closely related high-threat judicial events.

The Management of Local Major Events

The creation of a special-event organizational structure is of prime importance.  As mentioned earlier, the ICS structure is well suited as a model because it provides a clear delineation of responsibilities along cross-discipline functional competencies and is “scalable” enough to meet both planned and unplanned dynamics related to the major event.

The establishment and equipping of an effective and reliable communications system is another vital component of event management.  Communications challenges are ever-present at major gatherings.  Communications protocols must therefore provide for relaying routine event coordination information as well as separate security-specific and dedicated communications for law-enforcement and security officials. The protocols needed for communicating important safety and security information to the crowd gathered at and around the event also must be established beforehand. The special-services communications required for the area’s medical care and highway departments are usually handled through the protocols of those respective agencies. Nonetheless, special-services communications should be integrated, at the command level, with the event’s overall ICS structure.  Communications integration includes real-time, constant monitoring as well as the capability to pass information from ICS Incident Command and/or Section Chiefs to and across a number of disciplines and jurisdictions.

Event-management contingency plans should include the creation of pre-established criteria for deciding and implementing the actions needed not only to call off the event, if and when necessary, but also to rapidly communicate that decision to the media and participants, and to the general public.  Many outdoor special events are subject to dangerous and rapidly changing weather conditions that may require fast decision-making and/or public-safety actions.

Resource management, a particularly important aspect of planning, is already built into the NSSE model through its incorporation of the ICS guidelines. During the event, resources of the right competencies and numbers should be positioned to best prevent, mitigate, and respond to contingencies.  In terms of resource management, major events often require the involvement of the emergency services assets of several jurisdictions.  Multiple-jurisdiction participation should be based upon Mutual Aid Agreements; however, contingency plans also should consider: (a) the potential need to draw additional resources from other jurisdictions; and (b) the potential need for participating jurisdictions to recall their pre-committed assets to deal with an unexpected event in their own jurisdictions. 

Post-Event Considerations

All too often, after a major event has ended, there is a rapid retrograde of the public-safety principles established.  However, even the conclusion of a major event poses substantial security challenges. When large crowds are moving away from the event venue, for example, there is a greater propensity not only for accidents but also for criminal activity.  Public safety resources should be re-positioned, therefore, to facilitate the safe movement of pedestrians and traffic – and, not incidentally, to put those resources in a better position to respond to post-event contingencies.  From the terrorist’s perspective, the chaos inherent in post-event activities is an opportunity to carry out attacks that maximize casualties and exceed public-safety response capacities.

The Secret Service’s NSSE protocols, and the Guidelines, stress the need to plan for a rapid retrograde of security operations and resources. The Guidelines also highlight the importance of After-Action Reporting and Improvement Action Planning to maximize the lessons learned and, of perhaps greater importance, to prepare for the next Local Special Security Event.  Continued training and planning, after the conclusion of a major event, is an important best practice. 

Fortunately for security planners, most if not all major events are predictable – to at least some degree. Almost every community, of any size, throughout the United States hosts a series of events during the calendar year that are that community’s equivalent of a National Special Security Event.  Developing a system for evaluating the security challenges for each such event, then planning and scaling resources accordingly, is vital for the community’s safe participation in the event. Here, the inclusion of public and private stakeholders in the planning process is an important best practice.  The federal protocols developed and promulgated for the coordination and planning of NSSEs, combined with the DOJ Guidelines, are excellent resources for local communities to follow in developing their own Local Special Security Event procedures.

Joseph Watson

Sergeant Joseph Watson is a former Marine Military Police Officer and 25 year veteran of the City of Alexandria Police Department. He is currently team leader for the Department’s Special Operations Division, Community Support Section Homeland Security Unit. Watson is the founder and President of Special Operations Solutions, LLC. Consulting, Planning, Training, Exercises, and Operations. He is also a trainer in Basic and Advanced Special Operations, Firearms, Defensive Tactics, ODP Awareness, and Hazardous Materials. He was the recipient of the 2002 Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments, Chiefs Training Committee, Instructor of the Year award.

Joseph W. Trindal

As founder and president of Direct Action Resilience LLC, Joseph Trindal leads a team of retired federal, state, and local criminal justice officials providing consulting and training services to public and private sector organizations enhancing leadership, risk management, preparedness, and police services. He serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Justice, International Criminal Justice Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP) developing and leading delivery of programs that build post-conflict nations’ capabilities for democratic policing and applied modern investigative techniques. After a 20-year career with the U.S. Marshals Service, where he served as chief deputy U.S. marshal and ERT incident commander, he accepted the invitation in 2002 to become part of the leadership standing up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as director at Federal Protective Service for the National Capital Region. He serves on the Partnership Advisory Council at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). He also serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Managers of Police Academy and College Training. He was on faculty as an instructor at George Washington University. He is past president of the InfraGard National Capital Region Members Alliance. He has published numerous articles, academic papers, and technical counter-terrorism training programs. He has two sons on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Himself a Marine Corps veteran, he holds degrees in police science and criminal justice. He has contributed to the Domestic Preparedness Journal since 2006 and is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council.



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