June 1st, 2013

Kiersten E Todt considers how open events such as the Boston Marathon can be better secured against violence, examining the role of video surveillance, layered security and community and crowd awareness.

On 1 October 2005, a bomb detonated fewer than 200 yards from Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, where 84,501 spectators were attending a football game between the Oklahoma Sooners and Kansas State Wildcats.

Some spectators inside the stadium heard an explosion that was also reported up to five miles away, although fans on the east side of the stadium heard only a rumble – and a few heard nothing. Spectators were prevented from leaving the stadium at half-time, which caused concern among the fans who did hear the explosion.

In a press conference the next day, Oklahoma University President David Boren identified Joel ‘Joe’ Henry Hinrichs, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering student, as the person responsible for the detonation. He was the only fatality. Originally from Colorado Springs, Colorado, Hinrichs was a National Merit Scholar described by his father as a “very private individual” who had gone through “several severe bouts of depression” and had a difficult time making friends. Authorities learnt that Hinrichs detonated triacetone triperoxide (TATP), an extremely unstable compound that can be prepared using common household products and that had been used in the London bombings in July 2005. Authorities assumed that Hinrichs intended to detonate the bomb inside the stadium.

How does the Oklahoma bombing of 2005 relate tot he 2013 Boston Marathon bombings? It is the most vivid example of how the issue of sports security could have been very different, years before the Boston bombing. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, national security experts and government officials were concerned about the challenge of securing ‘soft targets’, such as open events and venues – places where it is impossible to screen everyone because spectating integrates seamlessly into everyday life. One can only imagine how sports security would have changed in the aftermath of a successful attack by Hinrichs. That it was not successful was not down to effective law enforcement or the efforts of sport security professionals; it was pure luck, something not in supply at the Boston Marathon and something that cannot be relied on in sports security planning.

While remembering the tragedy of Boston in terms of loss of life, injury and psychological damage, there are several important lessons in crisis management and emergency response that need consideration. The initial lessons learnt from 15 April 2013 include the critical roles of first responders and the importance and evolving role of surveillance and crowd education.

The role of first responders

Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) played a crucial role in the immediate and effective response to the Boston bombings. As the attack occurred at the finishing line, EMTs and triage stations, well into their work treating exhausted and dehydrated athletes, were available to respond quickly to the immediate aftermath of the explosions. Even though the EMTs and triage station personnel were not planning for the treatment of severe injuries resulting from bombs, having highly trained and qualified EMTs and their associated resources at close hand ensured that injuries were treated more quickly and effectively than they would otherwise have been had those stations not existed.

The success of the EMTs and how they performed was also a function of where the bombings took place. Had they taken place in Framingham, Wellesley, or dozens of less notable places along the marathon route, the death toll may have been higher because of the lack of EMTs, first responders, supporting infrastructure and fewer hospital facilities a short distance away. The starting and finishing lines are the two most secure and prepared locations on a marathon route. Boston illustrated the advantage of an effective emergency response at the finishing line, but also highlighted the potential challenge of deploying sufficient emergency response at locations away from the starting and finishing lines of an open event.

It must be recognised that when dealing with an open sporting event, those who are responsible for the security and safety must identify the places within and around the event where spectators and athletes are the most vulnerable – and where officials are most prepared for dealing with a crisis. Efforts towards strengthening the security of the event must include an increased EMT presence, as well as seeking great contributions from local first responders along the event route. Consideration should also be given to actively recruiting volunteers who have backgrounds in emergency response. This effort will ensure a higher distribution of qualified first responders along the event route, while maintaining the continued priority of resources at the start and finishing lines.

The second major lesson from the Boston Marathon bombings involves the new and evolving role of surveillance at an open venue event. Surveillance enables security officials to keep an eye on assets, athletes and the crowd during an event, and it also provides the ability to return to the time of a security breach and collect evidence after it has occurred. Video taken by cameras outside the Lord & Taylor department store on Boylston Street near the bombing site proved to be a turning point in the Boston investigation, as one official publicly stated. In the aftermath of 9/11, the deployment of video cameras has grown significantly at stadia and arenas around the world. The Boston events demonstrate the utility of surveillance technologies at open sporting events, especially in high-traffic locations.

The Boston bombings offered several lessons on the role of surveillance in securing similar sporting events, because video cameras typically used for preventing crime can have a significant role in crisis response. This recognition is not an argument for the creation of a ‘surveillance state’, but we must acknowledge that the proliferation of video technology can be an important asset in emergency response and recovery, as well as in crisis management throughout a post-event investigation.

One of the issues raised by the Boston post-event investigation was the ability of law enforcement officials to process huge amounts of video, photography and social media offered by the public in response to a request for the public’s help in the identification of potential suspects. The role of the community in providing data, videos and photographs of the bombing scenes and suspects, as well as first-hand descriptions of activity by the bombing suspects, was crucial in the evidence-collection process, but handling such material is resource intensive.

Following the Boston Marathon bombings, there will, understandably, be a greater need and demand for additional surveillance at metropolitan sporting events and locations. Some experts may assert that the logical next step is video surveillance along the entire route of sporting events. However, the cost, logistics and coordination of such a step may make it prohibitive. A middle ground may exist in identifying distributed locations and providing surveillance at those key locations, each of which is a reasonable distance to EMTs and triage stations.

It is incumbent upon organisers and security officials for open venue sporting events to build upon lessons learnt from Boston and to understand the evolving nature of the threat. The security officials along the marathon route were primarily facing the athletes because in the past the primary concern was security breaches that would have interrupted the event. Police would look at the crowd for disruptive activity that could impact athletes on the course; they were not looking for individuals with intention to injure spectators. This approach is typical for law enforcement when there is no credible threat or intelligence information indicating malicious intent and conduct. For example, at the 2004 Athens Olympics an individual emerged from the crowd and attacked the lead runner in the men’s marathon. Event planners must recognise that the threat information available to them is unlikely to be specific or ‘actionable’. Instead, security officials and emergency responders should be prepared for a wide array of contingency scenarios. As a result of what happened in Boston, we can expect marathon officials in the future to distribute their focus and attention equally between the athletes, the event and the crowd/spectators.

We cannot predict the motives or tactics of ‘lone wolf’ terrorists. The key to minimising and containing the violence is to educate the community and foster resilience. Even though authorities in Oklahoma had opened an investigation into Joel Hinrichs due to his request to purchase large amounts of ammonium nitrate, and the FBI was aware that the alleged Boston bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had an extended stay in Russia, neither case offered probable cause to conclude that an attempt at attacking a sport event was likely. Without information that law enforcement can act upon, the role of the community becomes critical in creating awareness before, during and after an event.

Facilitating communication

We need to empower communities and local partners to identify anomalous behaviours and facilitate communication with authorities. The United States Department of Homeland Security instituted a public awareness programme in 2010 under the slogan, ‘If you see something, say something’. This programme acknowledges the role of community in countering security threats in the transportation sector, and this role is now extended to other arenas, including spectators at sporting events. An unattended backpack in an airport or train will quickly attract the attention of security officials. After Boston, the same may be true at open sporting events.

The Boston bombings also drew attention to the community’s role in identifying signs of radicalisation and countering violent extremism. The key question is whether the Tsarnaev brothers exhibited enough behaviour and signs to trigger the community to notify law enforcement. Do communities have the tools, education and awareness to know what their role is in community safety and security? If not, what needs to be done? The cooperation between the community and law enforcement is fundamental in identifying and preventing potential terrorist threats. What is notable about the Boston bombings is that these brothers came from an ethnic community that had not been on the radar screen of the counter-terrorism community. Communities need to be educated on behaviours and anomalies and what to look for in a constantly evolving threat environment.

Is Boston a game-changer for countering domestic terrorism? Not necessarily, but one of the most critical lessons in preventing similar acts of lone-wolf terrorism, particularly as it pertains to open venue sporting events, is empowering communities and giving them the tools, education and awareness to identify extremism.

Approaches to consider include examining the community-based methods for preventing, responding to and recovering from all hazards, particularly natural hazards. We must employ the concept of resilience at open venue sporting events in order to ensure that security preparation includes the ability to identify vulnerabilities and contain breaches.

Identifying key lessons

As tragic as the Boston attack was, the response to the bombings should be viewed as a success. Response was immediate, victims were treated quickly, and the suspects were identified and captured within days of the event. We have identified several initial key lessons, and there will undoubtedly be more as information continues to flow. Specifically, we learnt of the importance of a fully capable EMT presence that is deployed in sufficient numbers along the route, increased surveillance, and the work that needs to be done on educating a crowd, which begins with the education of communities. We need to ensure that we take lessons learnt from each security event and integrate them into our safety practices.

Prior to the 22 October 2005 Oklahoma University football game against the Baylor Bears, season ticket holders received a letter from Oklahoma University President David Boren outlining new stadium security procedures, including restrictions on bags and purses brought into the stadium, more security cameras and hand searches of belongings. Readmission to the stadium after exiting during the game or at half-time was prohibited except for medical emergencies. The university had taken immediate steps to integrate lessons that had been learnt from the failed bombing attempt in August.

Following Boston, road races in New York City and elsewhere around the country experienced high levels of security. At the Preakness horse race in Baltimore, Maryland, enhanced security practices were put in place prohibiting backpacks and only allowing transparent, see-through coolers inside the event perimeter.

Is there the potential for overreaction to the tragedy in Boston? Absolutely. The level of security at a sporting event must reflect a realistic assessment of risk, both from terrorism and less serious disruptions. Some initial security reactions following Boston will likely be adjusted over time, but they represent an important internalisation of how and in what ways security procedures need to change to reflect the current threat reality.

In August 2007, Oklahoma University held an emergency drill to better prepare for future events during home football games. A gas line rupture inside Oklahoma Memorial Stadium was simulated. More than 500 students participated, along with responders from the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the local police and fire departments, the University of Oklahoma Police Department, and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. It was the first university stadium emergency drill of its kind in the United States.

One of the most effective ways in which to build, systematically, on lessons learnt is to test scenarios before the event. Those who organise open sports events should develop and execute scenario-driven exercises that expose the current risks and vulnerabilities with all relevant constituencies, including security officials, law enforcement, EMTs, athletes and vendors. Some key security lessons learnt from Boston that could be tested in future exercises include how to handle a breach-hours into an event when fatigue has set in, and how to maintain simultaneous surveillance on the crowd and the athletes. Exercising scenarios for open sporting venues is a necessity and should be a key component to security preparation before an event. We need to educate all of those involved in securing these types of events with scenario-driven approaches.

The layered defence approach that is effective in closed sporting events – including baggage checks, tickets and security gates – needs to be expanded upon to secure open sporting events. We need to identify the tools available in open events that will help prevent breaches, and also ensure effective response, recovery and resiliency to contain and manage the compromises. Initial lessons from Boston illustrate how EMT presence can ensure resilience, how surveillance is needed to improve prevention and response, and how crowd and community education and awareness is critical as the current threat environment continues to evolve.

Kiersten E Todt is the President and Chief Executive office of Liberty Group Ventures, LLC, and is a former professional staff member on the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.