At NCS4 conference, DHS and sports industry line up on same page

New Orleans, La., Aug. 3, 2011 -- The message on the first day of the NCS4 National Spectator Sports Security Conference from the Department of Homeland Security is that our nation's sports venues are a high priority.

Held at The Roosevelt hotel in New Orleans, the conference, which is hosted by the University of Southern Mississippi's National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security, featured a keynote address by DHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Infrastructure Protection Sue Armstrong. Armstrong emphasized to the audience of attending sports venue security directors that they needed to focus on realistic security threats.

“Do you focus on what is possible or what is probable?,” asked Armstrong, who said that it was impossible to protect against all possible threats in a stadium or sports venue type of environment. Armstrong cited the example of the DHS National Infrastructure Protection Plan (the NIPP), which she said focuses on probable elements of security and disaster incidents.

That sentiment was echoed by speaker Mike Helton, the president of NASCAR. Helton said that while the threat vector for NASCAR events changes race-by-race, he has to focus on the most likely threats – fan behavior issues and potential weather situations – as often as he has to concern himself with terrorism types of incidents. The reality, said Helton, is that a tornado striking a popular Sprint series event could do as much or more damage than a planned terrorism event.

And even though the every-day security and safety situations of weather and fan behavior drive most safety plans for venue security managers, that doesn't mean that those security managers are discounting terrorist acts.

Armstrong said that terrorist acts are likely to become more difficult to identify now that senior Al Qaeda leadership has been removed. Now the Osama bin Laden has been killed, those followers are being exhorted to operate independently, without planning from senior leadership. The group, she said, is encouraging local acts by persons from within the community. She cited video messages from November 2010 and June 2011 that encouraged active shooter types of incidents (like the type seen at Fort Hood), and threats against industry leaders.

With simplified terrorism plans and independently operated cells, Armstrong indicated that it would become more difficult to learn of such plans before they were carried out because there would be less “chatter” among plan participants.

To respond, critical infrastructure groups need to define voluntary best practices to secure their facilities, fans and employees. She praised efforts like the NCS4 group's conference as positive directions.

On a more point-by-point basis, Armstrong encouraged facility operators to have serious consideration on how they do their fan screening. While a fan screening 10 years ago might have simply meant making sure fans had valid tickets and didn't have liquor stashed in their pockets, today Armstrong was encouraging the associated sports venues at the conference (from small colleges to NFL-sized venues) to consider how far from the facility they placed screening – whether it was at the gate, at a door, at a fence established a set distance from the facility, or even in the parking areas.

Armstrong said that she also saw a need for many facilities to reconsider how connected they are with local first responders and safety plan constituents. She told the story of bringing together key safety stakeholders for nuclear plants – which would often include multiple levels of law enforcement, from local to federal, area fire departments, facility operators and nuclear regulators. What was surprising, she said, is how many times those DHS-organized meetings were the first time that those stakeholders had meet each other.

Finally, said Armstrong, the focus has to remain on involving fans in the security process. At the 2010 NCS4 conference, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano had lobbied for adoption of the “See something, say something” citizen-driven suspicious activity reporting effort. A year later, Armstrong said she had seen strides made in the promotion of that campaign (AEG's entertainment venues are one area where the campaign has been heavily adopted).

But as sports venue operators have become better at adopting DHS-recommended security procedures as well as best practices developed within the industry itself by groups like the University of Southern Mississippi's NCS4 program, event organizers like Helton have been able to turn their attention beyond the “probable” incidents (weather, fan behavior, crowd control) and now can work to secure themselves from the “possible”.

“It's a work in progress,” said Helton of NASCAR's efforts to prevent terrorism. “We are looking at the 'what if' types of scenarios.” He said his organization had already made crucial changes, such as not allowing unscreened trucks to be parked below populated grand-stands, but that there wasn't a magical method of measuring how effective their security procedures were.

“I don't know how you would put a metric on security,” he said. “Our metric is if everyone goes home safely at the end of the day.”