Game Plan: Safety & Security

We can all think of an example. The Boston Marathon bombing. The 1996 Olympic pipe bombing in Atlanta. The stadium explosion in Paris during a soccer match. And, of course, the recent Las Vegas concert attack. While not a sporting event, it is a prime example of the increasing threat of tragedy and the very real struggle to keep events safe. So, with the potential risks greater than ever, how do organizers and destinations best plan the safety and security of an event?

Security plans today have to be much more thorough than ever before. “You have to be prepared for everything,” said Beth Gendler, vice president of sales for the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission. “It’s easy to think that it would never happen in your city or town but the reality is that things can happen anywhere. It’s typical to more frequently look at weather-related issues or potential accidents because of the sport but you have to consider other risks, like terrorism, and be prepared for all of it.” Being prepared means making sure officials and volunteers involved with the sporting event know precisely what to do if an accident does occur and act instead of react, Gendler said. For example, with a cycling event held in the area, the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission provides volunteers on the bike route with instruction cards that explain what to do in the event of an emergency. “It’s good to make sure an order is in place in case of an emergency,” Gendler said. “We make sure that everyone knows ahead of time who is responsible for communicating information to various groups. A communication plan like that is needed so that you aren’t running around in an emergency trying to figure out what to do. And then you have to be sure if an emergency does happen that everyone sticks to the plan. Sometimes that can be hard when accidents do happen.”

Knowing who to communicate with during an event is crucial, added Trey Glover, park operations manager for the Spartanburg County (S.C.) Parks Department. The department has multiple facilities used throughout the year for sporting events and having a plan in place well ahead of time is crucial before each event comes to town. “Having the communication aspect established ahead of time takes the thinking process out of the way if an emergency does occur,” he said. “That makes the reaction more second nature versus trying to scramble around to figure out what to do.”

Part of creating that emergency plan is making sure all of the right people are involved with the planning from the start. The Snohomish County (Wash.) Sports Commission starts host-ing local organizing committee meetings months in advance and numerous city officials are invited to the table from the very beginning. “Our committee has the city officials on board so that they are there to discuss all aspects of safety so that we can best ensure the safety of athletes and spectators,” said Tammy Dunn, the commission’s sports development director. “We have everyone look at the venue or space the event will be hosted and get their thoughts on what they see and any input they have to make the space safer. That’s invaluable.”

The Atlantic City (N.J.) Sports Commission sits down with city municipality leaders—including the chief of fire, chief of police, chief of emergency medical services, beach patrol and the city’s risk manager—every other week, which ensures everyone is on the same page before an event is hosted. “At each meeting we discuss the events coming up and talk about anything that could have an impact on it, whether in a positive or negative way,” said Daniel Gallagher, the commission’s national sales manager. “We want everyone on the same page and everyone to know what is going on.”

Having city officials and others within the first-responder community involved in event planning can also mean taking advantage of trained experts who are prepared for any emergency thrown their way. “An agency will probably already have a plan in place for an emergency,” said Theresa Cohagen, director of the Mansfield (Texas) CVB. “The first thing a CVB or sports commission should do is to reach out to their local authorities and find out what steps they already have in place. Start with them because more than likely they will be a great source of info for putting a plan in place for an event.”

The George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas, views involvement with local police and other authorities as key to hosting major events in the city, and convention center staff also work with the Department of Homeland Security and four leading associations in the convention industry (Exhibition Services & Contractors Association, International Association of Exhibitions & Events, International Association of Venue Managers and Meeting Planners International) to test new security initiatives, said John Gonzalez, vice president and general manager of the center. Center staff will target one event in 2018 to test an enhancement of security features that are in line with typical security at airports and arenas. “The center will be the pilot program for the initiative,” Gonzalez said. “We’re going to implement the security measures and see what effect it has on the venue and event.”

The National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4) at the University of Southern Mississippi has been working to help sports venues, destinations and organizations with event safety and security since it was founded in 2006. NCS4 began as a response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “At that time, there were many sports venues being identified as soft targets for potential terrorist activity, so the NCS4 was set up to do training and education on security risks and threats,” said NCS4 Lab Director Daniel Ward.

NCS4 focuses on addressing the security risks and threats faced by the sports industry through many outlets, including research, professional development, training, technology assessments and certifications. The center conducts approximately 120 workshops—funded by FEMA and DHS every year—around the country and it also provides training to approximately 190 countries. The newest addition to the center is the National Sport Security Laboratory (NSSL), which was established in 2010 in a response to help validate and vet new technologies on the market. The lab is constantly investigating current threats to venues and the technology available—or needed—to help close the gaps. The lab also offers the lab-tested designation to technologies it deems beneficial, once tested. “We want to make sure we are educating people on technology and getting them the right technology,” Ward said. “Everything we do is centered around people, process and technologies.”

NCS4 is also home to many safety and security best practices across four specific sports areas: professional sports safety and security, collegiate, interscholastic sports and endurance events. NCS4 makes information available on its website and it encourages groups across the world to take advantage of its expertise and information. “We try to be a resource to support, facilitate and foster continuous improvement in sports and entertainment safety and security,” said Ward. “Now, after all of the tragedies we’ve seen, you’re having to look at safety and security from so many more angles. You have to consider much more.”

In that, Ward noted, venues and destinations have to find the right balance between protecting people and allowing them enough freedom and space to enjoy the event. “That’s difficult,” he said. “You want the event to be open and inviting but, at the same time, you want them to be safe. It’s a challenge because you don’t want to violate the participants’ or attendees’ privacy or intrude upon their experience but you need the right technology to protect them. It’s very difficult for anyone putting on an event to stay ahead of the curve with that.”

The best way to attempt to stay ahead of the curve, Ward said, is staying in tune with what is happening globally. “A lot of the time, what we see happening overseas eventually makes its way here,” he said. “And then you must have an awareness of what is going on around your event that could cause controversy. Then try to forecast through a threat and vulnerability assessment what your specific threats and vulnerabilities are. No two events or venues are the same, so the risks will be different.”

Even when knowing the potential risks, it can be overwhelming to put an effective safety plan together but it’s critical that venues and destinations make the effort to do so. “You have to start somewhere,” Ward said. “You can sit and talk about every negative that could happen but you have to take the steps to continuously improve. And we look at ourselves as a resource in helping people do that. We are constantly looking at the problems of today to try to forecast the solutions of tomorrow.”

For more information about The National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security, and the National Sport Security Laboratory, visit