Enhancing Infrastructure Protection Through Special Events

by Erin Mohres

In an atmosphere of limited resources, critical infrastructure (CI) protection can be difficult to prioritize with crime-fighting and disaster response. Understanding real-world lessons learned from local agencies is one way to make progress. Leveraging the urgency demanded by special events can be a particularly productive path forward. This article offers suggestions from practitioners to develop CI protection programs through special events management, at varying levels of capability and scale.

Erin Mohres headshotIn 2014, the City of Houston, Texas, hosted the National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star Game. Police, fire, emergency management, and public services followed their standard procedures, and it was as successful as expected. Interestingly, however, it was the Galleria Mall that was unexpectedly closed down that Saturday night during regular business hours and even caused a special police unit to be deployed. Social media fueled excitement about possible celebrity sightings at the upscale shopping center, attracting huge crowds of people that ultimately made ingress and egress nearly impossible. Since then, the Galleria has become a fixture on the special-event-related critical infrastructure (CI) scene, hosting protests after the Ferguson, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois, shootings, and continuing to attract huge crowds during sports events.

The lesson from Houston’s experience is one that is becoming more evident to many state and local organizations: to increase CI protection and special-event readiness, and expand the traditional and obvious definition of CI. Both Houston’s Regional Infrastructure Protection Coordinator Jack Hanagriff and the Florida International University’s Director of Emergency Management Amy B. Aiken agree.

The Case of Florida International University

Florida International University (FIU) is a public university with 55,000 students and a 342-acre main campus in South Florida. Its ideal location, committed leadership, and sophisticated public safety capabilities make it attractive to a variety of high-profile special events. In addition to sporting events, homecomings, and commencements, it regularly hosts U.S. presidents, vice presidents, cabinet members, and foreign leaders. In 2015, it even hosted the Miss Universe Pageant. President Barack Obama, presidential nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former Homeland Security Secretary and current Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have all been visitors to FIU in the past few years.

FIU’s special events take place at the 20,000-seat Riccardo Silva Stadium, 5,000-seat FIU Arena, student center ballrooms, and its outdoor open spaces. The FIU Police Department (FIUPD), with its 64 sworn officers, is the lead agency on preparing for and responding to these events. It has a dedicated special events coordinator who works closely with local, county, and federal law enforcement on all large-scale events. FIUPD has contributed to long-term CI protection through preparing for these events – it conducts security and threat assessments for its critical sites, updated the arena’s fire alarm system, and enhanced camera surveillance systems. It also conducts rapid deployment training, critical incident response team training, and active shooter training. It employs specialized tactics on the day of the event, such as using bomb-detection dogs and event sweeps, crowd-protection measures with movable concrete barricades and vehicles, and multiple police and unified command posts, all of which also enhances its steady-state readiness and ability to respond to no-notice events at campus CI. These measures are typically funded through FIU’s annual budget, especially facilities and police. Security decisions are the purview of the FIU police chief, who makes recommendations to the FIU president.

FIUPD also coordinates with the university’s Emergency Management Department, which sees ample opportunities to enhance CI protection through high-profile events. In August 2017, Emergency Management Director Amy B. Aiken reported the following:

Our police take solid action toward preparing and protecting critical infrastructure that host and support our special events; next, we must increase our focus and consider a larger set of assets crucial to the mission of universities, such as research labs, data centers, and even chiller plants. Police proactively engage in tactical training and exercises that prepare them to respond to events at critical infrastructure, and our next step should be determining how to include other key partners. Facilities staff are key players in infrastructure protection before, during, and following an event – they manage shut-off valves, understand electrical feeds into the buildings, and are familiar with building vulnerabilities. Emergency management staff can expand planning activities and coordinate communications with comprehensive sets of stakeholders.

Aiken outlined four steps that universities and other jurisdictions should work toward when building their programs:

  1. Clarify who is in charge of and responsible for a comprehensive infrastructure protection program. Make sure the answer is understood all the way to the top of the chain of command and applies to all hazards.
  2. Identify all types of CI that support the mission of the university (or the jurisdiction). Identify these ahead of time, not immediately prior to an event, when the characteristics of the event will undoubtedly bias the CI identified.
  3. Develop an integrated approach to grants management. Grant opportunities for CI protection are out there, but a practical process is required to pursue them effectively. Emergency management can identify opportunities, law enforcement has the expertise to guide project development, and research programs have experience in grant writing. Still, in the current environment, no one has staff with extra time on their hands for new tasking: to develop the approach and then staff it.
  4. Expand pre-event planning to include a wide variety of stakeholders. The CI protection manager, grants managers, emergency management coordinators, and facilities staff may all be able to offer new pieces of data and expertise that turn sound, reliable special events management into even more sophisticated programs. Establish clear delineations of authority to coordinate a larger initiative.

The Case of Houston

Houston is the fourth most populous city in the United States, with over 2.3 million people. It has a $4 billion budget, a police department with more than 5,000 officers, and a fire department with nearly 4,000 personnel. The city hosts some of the most high-profile events in the world, including Super Bowl LI in 2017, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Men’s Final Four in 2011 and 2016, and the NBA All-Star Game in 2013. It is also home to some of the country’s most important CI, such as the 72,000-seat NRG Stadium (formerly Reliant Stadium), the 25-mile Port of Houston (with the largest petrochemical complex in the country), and the headquarters of numerous Fortune 500 companies, including Phillips 66, ConocoPhillips, and Sysco Corp.

Enhancing Infrastructure Protection Through Special Events


With this profile, it should be no surprise that Houston is experienced, well resourced, and understands how to work with partners at all levels of government. Still, to maintain its reputation, the city must be a thought leader in the field of CI protection and special events management, and Houston delivers. In August 2017, Houston Police Officer Jack Hanagriff, assigned as regional infrastructure protection coordinator, offered specific recommendations from his experience innovating with partners across the city and the region:
  1. Be ready as the current world changes fast. As Hanagriff points out, “It’s not about a traditional definition of critical infrastructure, but knowing what will become a focus of increased threat or activity on any given day.” Houston has a comprehensive infrastructure catalog and sound practices in place to prioritize and make decisions around that catalog. They know, however, that is not enough. “When a sports event is coming up, for example, Houston Police will conduct threat assessments on shopping malls, even shoe stores,” says Hanagriff. “Decision makers have to think about the nature of the event, where celebrities might wind up, and what unexpected places the crowds might go. We’re reinventing the old model.”
  2. Stop pigeonholing the use of cameras. Houston thinks beyond both the traditional sources and traditional uses of cameras. Emergency management, transportation departments, private security staff, and fire and rescue all have needs for, and sometimes own, cameras. “Our philosophy is: the more eyes on a camera, the better. We opened up our cameras to multiple agencies. Of course there are privacy concerns and security concerns, so some cameras can’t be shared, and we work that out ahead of time,” adds Hanagriff. “Public services and event operations may use cameras fixed on trash cans so they know when they’re full. They monitor common spaces and concourses to increase situational awareness. We have to work with what’s available and come up with the best ways to take advantage of that. And if the camera owners know they will get some additional camera access if they share their own, they are more inclined to do so.”
  3. Work with the private sector. Create coalitions that offer clear, concrete benefits to everyone. Houston is creating a Smart City Ecosystem – a coalition of public and private stakeholders that grew out of a very successful, quick-turn initiative to launch new technology during Super Bowl LI earlier this year. The Ecosystem works on designing and deploying cutting-edge technologies and services that support CI resilience and special-events management. One such technology is a new type of camera system that detects anomalies in typical sights and sounds. It does not record, just monitors. This is a critical support mechanism because most incidents are reported when someone sees or hears something out of the ordinary. Industry partners including Axis Communications, VidSys, Verizon, and Siklu radios develop these technologies and services for the city at no cost. As a result, they get direct access to public safety expertise and to local businesses who may be interested in their products, and they get to market their work. Local businesses and CI owners and operators provide access to existing cameras, their networks, and physical space. They receive expanded camera coverage and learn about emergent technologies. A particularly important benefit to the local owners and operators is greater situational awareness. When an incident has cascading consequences – perhaps a bottleneck in traffic preventing people and cars from getting in and out – they can see outside their own perimeter and directly into the problem. The city gets free technology, equipment, services, and access, and provides the forum for these private-sector partners to collaborate and to try out their innovations.


“With everything we do, we have an S-rule: We think about sustainability, scalability, support, and skill development,” concluded Hanagriff. “‘What are the ongoing costs? How many agencies or users are supported for that cost? Will we need contractors to support it or can my own IT staff do it? Can our personnel operate the technology?’ This informs what we move forward with.”

The author would like to thank Wili Alvarez and Benjamin Guerrero from FIU for their contributions to this article.

Erin Mohres is a safety and security director with CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization. She supports U.S. Department of Homeland Security programs and other initiatives focused on state and local emergency management efforts. She was an emergency manager for Miami-Dade County and the City of Fort Lauderdale. She received her MA in International Relations from the University of Miami and her BA in Political Science from the University of Illinois.